After Consolidating Districts, Towns Face Challenges Redeveloping School Buildings

Sep 10, 2015

The Deerfield Valley towns of Wilmington and Whitingham voted to consolidate their towns' school districts in 2011 and at the end of the 2014 school year the Twin Valley High School building in Wilmington closed. High School students started the 2015 school year in a newly renovated facility in Whitingham.

The newly merged district now wants to develop the shuttered Twin Valley High School building but there are a number of state laws and rules that are getting in the way of that plan.

Education officials and lawmakers are now watching what happens in Wilmington as other districts that are looking into consolidation and closing schools could be facing similar challenges.

Dennis Richter, chairman of the Wilmington School Board, said the board is considering renting the space in the closed school to both save money and serve the community.

"The Wilmington School District is looking to re-purpose the former Twin Valley High School and making this a community center," Richter said. "It's a unique opportunity for Wilmington and its surrounding towns. Something like a community center is sorely needed for the community and its seniors and we're very excited about its possibilities."

Richter said the board has ideas for the old building, and even potential tenants lined up who are interested, but a list of state rules and laws are scuttling efforts to develop the property.

During consolidation efforts the state agreed to pay 50 percent of the construction costs associated with the merger and part of that deal included an agreement with the state that the closed school would not be used for educational purposes.

Now the supervisory union's special ed program is eyeing the available space and Twin Valley athletes want to use the gym and locker rooms. But the agreement with the Agency of Education is preventing both actions from happening.

Another obstacle is a provision in the school construction aid law that says districts have to repay a portion of the tax dollars that were used for past projects if the building is sold.

Twin Valley received money for a project dating back to the early 1980s and the school board now wants relief from returning the money if the building sells.

And there are health and fire codes that demand that building owners upgrade their facilities if there is a change of use.

"In a lot of ways Twin Valley is a little bit like the canary in the mine... There's a lot to be learned from what we've gone through over the time period to consolidate." - Wilmington Rep. Ann Manwaring

  Rep. Ann Manwaring lives in Wilmington and she said the state needs to address these issues as other districts across Vermont begin to contemplate consolidation.

"In a lot of ways Twin Valley is a little bit like the canary in the mine, if you will," Manwaring said. "There's a lot to be learned from what we've gone through over the time period to consolidate. It all has to be worked through so that we, and taxpayers, and parents and students themselves trust that where we're going with this is going to matter to them."

The Legislature passed Act 46 this year, a law that offers districts tax breaks to consolidate into larger districts of at least 900 students.

The Wilmington-Whitingham merger predated Act 46 and Manwaring said the state should be paying attention to what happens there as other districts in the state set out toward consolidation.

"We didn't think our way through and, before all this work was done, knock down all the things that are out there," she said. "And so we found them, and so we'll just keep pushing until we can find a way to deal with them in a way that makes sense in terms of our longer term objectives."

Manwaring, who is a member of House Education Committee says if the state is going to expect other districts to consolidate and close school buildings then it should be easier, and not harder, to come up with new uses for closed schools.

Manwaring said she expects lawmakers to begin addressing some of the unintended outcomes of Act 46 when they return to Montpelier in January.

But not every state law is working against the district.

There is a provision in state education law that allows districts to ask the education secretary and the Attorney General to weigh in on state policies when "sound administration of the district" is at stake.

The Windham Southwest Supervisory Union board last month authorized superintendent Chris Pratt to come up with a proposal for the AOE and Attorney General.

Bill Talbott, chief financial officer and deputy secretary at the Agency of Education, said the agency knows about Twin Valley's problems and he said the agency is also interested in making school consolidation appealing to districts.

But he said taxpayers invested in the work in the Twin Valley district in an effort to shut down the outdated Twin Valley High School building and it might be a hard sell to now convince the Agency of Education to allow the district to use the building.

"As far as we're concerned the project's completed in Whitingham and the deal was taxpayers in the state paid 50 percent of the cost of that building because they were going to be more efficient and save money by not operating the building in Wilmington," Talbott said. "Our whole idea is to save money. There's a cost to operating a building, and by not operating a building that saves money. That's why the state agreed to pay such a high proportion of their costs."

Talbott said the Agency of Education is going to work with lawmakers next year to come up with solutions for districts that close their schools and want to re-purpose the buildings.

"The Legislature is interested in some of the issues related to this; the refund upon sale statute, they're looking at it," said Talbott. "I think they're very interested in making these consolidations under Act 46 easy to do. So we're going to put some information together for them and they will be looking at it next year."

Even though there is a raft of unanswered questions the district is moving ahead with its plan to re-purpose the building.

The Wilmington Development Review Board last month approved a change of use permit for the building and the Wilmington Selectboard has also begun talking about what it would look like for the municipality to take over ownership of the former high school.

But a lot has to be sorted out before the former Twin Valley High School building gets a second life.