- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

BOLTON, Vt. (AP) - With the numbers of kindergarteners and primary grade students down by about half and costs climbing, some wondered how long taxpayers in the rural town of Bolton were going to be able to keep the Smilie Memorial Elementary School open.

But last November, voters in the town of about 1,200, and the neighboring school districts serving Richmond, Jericho, Underhill and the Underhill independent district, all facing declining enrollments and increasing costs, voted to form a unified school district.

Gov. Peter Shumlin and other state officials liked the example so much that Shumlin chose the Smilie school as the location Tuesday to sign legislation calling for school districts around Vermont to take similar steps.

“In the last 20 years, Vermont’s school system has lost 20,000 students,” Shumlin said. “There was no significant reconfiguration of our education system as happened here in Chittenden East. Other communities haven’t joined up in big numbers.”

Previously, the Chittenden East Supervisory Union had had eight school boards - one for each town’s elementary school, one for the regional Mount Mansfield Union High School and one for the overall supervisory union. Each of the tiny elementary schools - Smilie’s student population is about 70, including 20 preschoolers - hired its own teachers and managed its own affairs separately from the others.

“The trajectory of education spending at Smilie because of some of the fixed costs and the declining enrollment was making it really difficult for the community to afford the school,” said school Superintendent John Alberghini. “By unifying together, they… share resources with the other schools (and that) puts them on surer financial footing.”

One of the schools had 22 kindergarteners - too big for one classroom and too small for two. By sending some kids across town lines in the newly unified district, they’re able to smooth out class sizes, saving the need to hire an additional teacher.

Shumlin called the unification effort in the Chittenden East Supervisory Union “a shining example of what we’ve got to do across the state of Vermont.”

The legislation signed into law Tuesday calls for other communities to follow Chittenden East’s lead. It creates incentives for communities to work on unifying area school districts. Those that go first get the biggest incentives. Stragglers will face extensive reporting to the state Board of Education showing they can provide a quality education at a reasonable cost. Eventually they could be required to merge with neighboring districts.

But not everyone is on board, even in the Chittenden East district. The town of Huntington still is part of the district for purposes of sending older students to the Camel’s Hump Middle School in Richmond and the Mount Mansfield Union High School in Jericho. But Huntington voters have voted twice, most recently by a 2-1 margin in November, to keep their elementary school independent and maintain its own school board.

One vocal unification opponent is Gail Conley, a retired school superintendent who lives in Huntington.

“A lot of people in Huntington like the local input and local authority they have over their elementary school,” Conley said in an interview Tuesday. “Along with that was that many people thought the projected savings were projections only, not based on any data.”

Conley said he takes a dim view of the legislation. “It’s not going to help kids and it’s not going to save money,” he said.

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