Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend. File photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger
JAMAICA – Given a chance to reconsider
their decision to leave the Leland & Gray regional school union, Jamaica voters reversed course Tuesday.
The town voted, by a 126 to 102 margin, in favor of staying in the five-town union. That has immediate implications for Jamaica’s school board, which now will focus on a different Act 46 merger scenario.
“The board will no longer be pursuing a potential merger with Dover, Marlboro and Wardsboro,” school board Chairwoman Stephanie Amyot said. “We will be turning our full attention to a potential merger with the Leland & Gray towns and to making both Jamaica Village School and Leland & Gray the best schools they can possibly be.”
Jamaica’s recent school union votes are a direct result of Act 46, the 2015 state law that pushes for consolidation of smaller school districts statewide in an attempt to cut costs and boost educational equality.
In Windham Central Supervisory Union, merger studies have been made more difficult by the size of the union and the diversity of educational offerings. There are a dozen school boards, eight schools and varying levels of school choice – all currently functioning under the same supervisory union governance.
Jamaica’s school board earlier this year asked town residents about several potential Act 46 merger options, but the mixed results of that survey were deemed inconclusive.
So the board scheduled a vote to see whether residents wanted to leave the Leland & Gray school union, which consists of Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham. Departing from the union would give Jamaica students school choice options that are not currently available, as pupils now go from the town’s elementary to Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School.
By a three-vote margin, voters approved leaving the union on July 12.
But some were concerned about the low turnout, as just 153 votes were cast. There also was concern that Jamaica’s exit could destabilize Leland & Gray, and that not enough residents understood the impact of leaving the union.
Patti Dickson, a Jamaica parent and Leland & Gray board member, led a successful petition drive for a revote, which was held Tuesday.
This time, 228 people cast ballots – a 49 percent increase from July’s turnout. Fifty-five percent of Jamaica voters opposed leaving the union, up from 49 percent in July.
And the result seems likely to stand. State law says a ballot question cannot be presented for reconsideration more than once within 12 months unless the legislative body — in this case, the school board — approves it.
Amyot said advocates for staying in the union “were quite active” in lobbying before Tuesday’s revote, possibly driving more turnout. Also, “there was a great deal more public awareness this time about the importance of the vote,” she added.
That importance is reflected in the shift in Jamaica’s Act 46 studies.
The prospect of leaving the Leland & Gray union had led the town school board to pursue a potential merger with Dover, Marlboro and Wardsboro school districts. In that setup, Jamaica’s elementary would have remained open, and students could have had school choice from seventh grade onward.
In light of Tuesday’s vote, a merger study with the other Leland & Gray districts will now take priority.
That’s not to say officials haven’t learned some lessons from the union departure debate. Demand for school choice and dissatisfaction with the current educational structure clearly persists, given the fact that more than 100 ballots were cast to leave the union Tuesday.
“We hope that the active conversation the town has been involved in over the last year will help inform, invigorate and direct the board and administration,” Amyot said. “And we also hope that the community will become even more involved in, and supportive of, both schools.”
The overall result of Tuesday’s vote was “good news for us,” said Joe Winrich, a Townshend resident and chairman of the Leland & Gray school board.
“But the numbers still say that we need to talk to our people in Jamaica and reach out to that community and work with them to do the best we can for the kids,” Winrich said.
Act 46 merger talks among the union schools should answer three critical questions, Winrich said: “How can this merger improve the education for all of our students? How can we make this more equitable? How can we offer more for the kids?”