Town of Halifax, Vermont

December 20, 2019

The Town of Halifax will hold a Special Town Meeting on December 30, 2019, to vote on the following citizen-petitioned article: “Shall the Town of Halifax vote to withdraw from the Southern Valley Unified Union School District .” This evening’s informational meeting was held to give residents an opportunity to ask questions and comment on  that topic. Lewis Sumner opened the session at 7:05 p.m., and then turned it over to Town Moderator Paul Blais, who invited questions from approximately two dozen attendees. One participant asked what effect withdrawal would have on Halifax, financially and in general. Southern Valley School Director Chum Sumner gave an overview of the withdrawal process. The first town to vote on the question will have a floor vote. If Halifax votes to withdraw, the Secretary of State then notifies other towns in the unified district (in this case Readsboro) that they must have a vote by Australian ballot. If that vote is affirmative, the request goes to the Agency of Education and Secretary of Education; those State officials are the only ones with the power to dissolve a unified district. Towns can vote to withdraw, but not to dissolve. Sumner said we were the first unified union school district in the State to attempt a dissolution; he has no idea what the State response will be.

During the original Act 46 merge process, schools were told that if they did not merge voluntarily the State would create unified districts, and schools which did not merge would lose their small schools grants. Sumner said that now the unification process has been completed those schools which remained independent are not being forced to merge, and they are still eligible for the yearly small schools grants, they just have to reapply each year and maintain the required level of academic excellence. If Southern Valley were dissolved, Halifax and Readsboro schools would return to functioning as they did before the merger. Sumner shared information about what education costs might look like in FY21 if the District were dissolved by that time. These numbers are from a first draft of a proposed school budget, and Sumner emphasized that they were just a rough estimate. These figures are only our best guess, said Sumner; they are close, but not definitive. The Halifax school budget would be $1,685,000 and the Readsboro budget $1,714.000; Readsboro’s budget is higher than Halifax’s even though they only have a little over half as many students. Per pupil cost in Readsboro would be $18,471, Halifax per pupil cost would be $15,938. If we remain a unified district the per pupil cost is $17,541. In effect, Halifax would be paying almost $2,000 more per pupil if we stay combined, and Readsboro about $1,000 less.

 Sumner said he could not think of any advantage to continuing the unified district. It has not helped with dollars, it has not helped with education. Last year, as Readsboro eighth-graders attended Halifax, administration struggled with the logistics of transporting students safely between the two towns. For about three months they were paying $405 a day for taxi service. Paul Blais responded to a question about the graduated tax reduction incentive (8, 6, 4, 2 cents in the second  through fifth years) that was an element of the unification. The Town would not be required to pay back the reductions they’ve already received, he said. We would also not have to pay back the grant funds received at the outset of the Act 46 merger process.

The cost of Readsboro’s building renovations is not included in the rough proposed budget estimates prepared to date. Some of those present have heard that Readsboro’s campus renovations could cost about $1.6 million. Sumner said an engineering firm has assessed the building and submitted a 40-page report of needed upgrades. A recently-hired Supervisory Union employee with experience in large building maintenance has reviewed the engineering firm’s report and is of the opinion that it represents a Cadillac plan; the project could be done for less, and perhaps not all at once. Halifax would be responsible for 50% of any renovation costs.

Blais said dissolution requires a vote of approval in both towns. Per statute, the first town votes from the floor and any other towns in the union then must hold a vote by Australian ballot. Readsboro has set a January 20th date for a floor vote, but there is some confusion about this, as Halifax will be voting prior to that date. Sumner explained that because the Readsboro Selectboard also received a petition requesting a vote on withdrawal, they must act upon the petition, but they will then have to vote again, at a later date, by Australian ballot after Secretary of State notification.

Sandy Pentak, who has been Principal in Halifax for five years and Principal of both campuses for the last two years, said that on the positive side, larger class size in Halifax has been beneficial to students, and this year has been a great year. Sumner agreed that students from Readsboro who have attended Halifax (and their parents) have indicated they were very happy with the educational environment.

The Special Town Meeting is scheduled for Monday, December 30, 2019, 7:00 p.m. in the Halifax School multipurpose room. There will be opportunity, prior to the floor vote, for citizens to discuss the issue and ask questions.

The meeting concluded at approximately 7:40 p.m.

Respectfully submitted,
Robbin Gabriel
Selectboard Secretary