To continue from last week, we passed, and the governor signed, H.205, our Pollinator Protection Bill. Among other things, it bans the use of neonicotinoid products for household use and improves education for beekeepers regarding the importance of controlling Varroa mites that are having a devastating effect because of the viruses they spread.
In S.160, the Agricultural and Forestry Development Act, we included a provision that allows the Secretary of the Agency of Agriculture to convene a seed review committee to review the seed traits of a new genetically engineered seed proposed for sale, distribution or use in Vermont. This is, in part, the result of concerns about products such as dicamba-resistant seeds that have caused devastating losses to farmers in the South and Midwest. If applied under certain conditions, dicamba can volatilize and drift, killing other crops. While most of the damage has been done to annual soybean crops, dicamba could wipe out long-term Vermont investments such as sugarbushes, hardwood stands, and vineyards. We are the first in the nation to take such an action.
On the home front, but legislatively connected, are Acts 46 and 49. In preparation for a June 11th election to forcibly merge the Windham School District into the West River Modified Union Education District (WRMUED), informational meetings have been held in Jamaica and Newfane. There will be two more, one at the Windham Elementary School on June 3rd at 7 PM and one in Townshend at Leland and Gray Middle/High School on June 6th at 7 PM. We are strongly encouraging folks to attend these meetings or view the videos that can be found at https://www.brattleborotv.org/west-river-education-district/wred-info-mtg-52919.
The Windham School Board, which I chair, has deep concerns about this vote and is encouraging people to vote no because it potentially allows the voters of other towns to override the legally warned, Australian ballot vote that Windham voters took on Town Meeting Day 2017 to not merge. A subsequent vote on Town Meeting Day 2019, to authorize the School Board to sell the school to the Town of Windham, if the State Board of Education orders us to merge, passed on a 65-3 vote margin.
In a recent letter to registered voters in the WRMUED district, we expressed several reasons why we object to the vote. First, we believe strongly in the fundamentals of democracy and that voting is one of our most precious, basic rights. We asked that Windham’s vote to not merge be respected. We also take exception to the very language in the first article because it connotes that Windham is asking to be “accepted” into the WRMUED. We are not. We consider it a hostile takeover and we ask that voters vote no. Just as we believe that forced marriages are bad practice, we believe the same is true of forced mergers.
Second, we are engaged in a lawsuit that is still in process. Things are moving along but it is possible, and indeed probable, that this will be appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court. We feel that we have a strong case because the Vermont Constitution does not allow the taking of property without an affirmative vote of the people from whom the property is being taken without fair compensation. The giving of Windham School District property to the WRMUED without an affirmative vote of Windham voters is, in our view, an affront to the Constitution.
Third, the voters of the Town of Windham approved its FY2020 budget at Town Meeting on a unanimous voice vote, despite a sharp increase due to special education costs. We have signed contracts with our teachers and support staff who are relying on employment at our school next year and they have been told that if this motion passes, their contracts will be null and void.
Our two beloved teachers, Mickey Parker-Jennings and Sally Newton, have more than 35 years of combined service to our school. It has been suggested that if we are merged there is a strong chance that one of our teachers would be transferred to another school. Since Mickey has his Principal’s license, there is a strong possibility that it would be Sally Newton who would be transferred in her last year of teaching (she is set to retire after this coming year) after 25 years of service to our school. Such an action, in our view, is unconscionable.
Sally has brought amazing opportunities to Windham Elementary such as a school garden long before Farm to School was even thought of, daily music and weekly ukulele lessons for all children who want to learn including students from other districts and home schoolers, and a walking/running club to help promote physical fitness, just to name a few.
Little thought has been put into what transportation would look like or that it would even be provided. We are the only school that owns its own bus and hires its own driver, which is the most cost-effective way of providing transportation for our children. Our bus driver would be asked to work additional time each day that has not been budgeted for and we are not sure that he would be willing to do it. The WRMUED board will not say what would be offered in terms of transportation and fall back on the excuse that until they know what the vote is, they won’t say what would be offered.
The problem with Acts 46 and 49 is that they are unclear about what equity means. This allows one school to offer Cadillac services, such as all-day Pre-K at no cost and aftercare services, while claiming to want to improve opportunities for all. With the advent of elementary school choice, it is enticing to abandon one’s hometown school. We are seeing the results at the Jamaica School where one-third of the students have chosen to go to Townshend School, leaving 30 students in Jamaica. We sadly wonder how long Jamaica will be able to maintain its school.
We have been promised that only a town can vote to close its school, but we were told at the Newfane meeting that in the future the WRMUED could change its Articles of Agreement nullifying that provision. We fear the decisions that might be made by this board regarding our small, geographically isolated school and the negative impact they could have on the education of our students, when we have only one member to represent our position. We remember that in a pre-merger letter it was promised that there would be no immediate “day to day” operational changes and that “students will continue going to their town’s elementary school”, and yet within the first year they voted to move all the sixth graders from the elementary schools to Leland and Gray Union Middle/High School. When petitions with 200+ signatures were presented to the WRMUED Board asking for a reconsideration and vote, they were essentially dismissed.
If we are forcibly merged and the Windham School ultimately closes, our choices for elementary school would be limited to Jamaica, NewBrook, and Townshend Schools, but Windham is separated by a steep, high-risk rural road from those schools and many people in Windham have stronger ties with the Londonderry and Chester areas. Parents may want to send their children to other schools such as Flood Brook, Chester/Andover, Grafton, or any other approved independent school of the students’ parents’ choice. Voting no now would allow for that possibility in the future.
After the Newfane meeting, the man sitting in front of me, a Townshend resident who had asked excellent questions about the benefits an affirmative vote would bring, turned to me and said, “I don’t know why anyone in the other towns would vote for this”. In fact, the increased opportunities were illusive and the unanswered questions many.
According to the pamphlet sent by the WRMUED, taxes in Jamaica and Townshend would go up one cent and stay level in Brookline and Newfane. Taxes in Windham would go down thirty cents for one year but at what cost? Loss of possession of our building, land, and school bus? The necessity to undo the arrangement if we prevail in our lawsuit? Loss of control of our budgeting? And it should be noted that these tax rates are, in part, due to provisions included in Acts 46/49 to make merger more attractive, but that will disappear in the near future.
In short, the Windham School Board is asking for another year to resolve the lawsuit, honor the contracts with our teachers and staff, and make decisions about the future of our school that will truly offer the best educational opportunities for all of Windham’s children.