Could Act 46 Save Tinmouth From Becoming 'Just A Bunch Of Houses'?

Feb 26, 2016

Act 46 is Vermont's new school district consolidation law and it was written in part to extend a lifeline to the state's smallest schools. Tinmouth Elementary School is one of the smallest schools in the state, and the town will vote on a merger plan on Town Meeting Day.

Even by Vermont standards, Tinmouth is tiny, with 50 kids in pre-K through sixth grade.

The law forces school boards to merge into larger districts so schools can share resources and services with their neighbors. The state is giving tax incentives to schools that get a consolidation plan before July 1.

After a few years, the Agency of Education will force mergers from out of the remaining districts that don't do it voluntarily.

Tinmouth Principal Maureen Fitzgerald-Riker says the local school board saw this year's merger proposal as the best way of saving Tinmouth Elementary.

"What they wound up doing was saying, 'OK, if we don't do something about this now, in 2018 and 2020 the state's going to come in and we're not going to have a choice,'" she says. " So if we want to preserve our school, we need to move on this now. And they did."

On March 1, Tinmouth, Clarendon, Wallingford and Shrewsbury will hold independent votes in each town asking voters to approve the school district merger.

 

Tinmouth Principal Maureen Fitzgerald-Riker says the local school board saw this year's merger proposal as the best way of saving Tinmouth Elementary.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Jill Kroger has three kids in the school, and she says there's strong support to keep the school open.

She went to a meeting to hear about the merger.

"It was mostly townspeople, not necessarily parents, but mostly townspeople," Koger says. "They really care about the school. And as a parent, I want to be part of the community making decisions for my children."

"If we don't do something about this now, in 2018 and 2020 the state's going to come in and we're not going to have a choice. So if we want to preserve our school, we need to move on this now." - Maureen Fitzgerald-Riker, Tinmouth Elementary School principal

Tinmouth Elementary is attached to the town community center, and the school uses the gym and kitchen.

There's nothing else around, and the school and community center feel like a village green in the center of a small town hidden deep in the woods.

Taylor Patch raises his hand to answer a question at Tinmouth Elementary School. Patch is one of 50 students enrolled at Tinmouth; there are just three students in the kindergarten class.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

"We have no commercial establishments," says Grant Reynolds, Tinmouth's representative on the Rutland South Act 46 Study Committee. "There's no country store where people can run into each other. The school is the center of our community. Without it, we're just a bunch of houses."

Vermont has lost a quarter of it students in the past 15 years and the numbers are stacked against small schools.

Like at schools elsewhere in Vermont, there's been a slow steady drop in student counts at Tinmouth, and this year there are three students in the kindergarten class.

"The school is the center of our community. Without it, we're just a bunch of houses." - Grant Reynolds, Tinmouth Act 46 Study Committee member

Reynolds says for the school to survive, it needs to work with its neighbors and be realistic about the school's ability to completely control its own destiny.

"Little towns do not like to give up local control," Reynolds says. "And yet the law made it plain that we're going to have to merge into bigger districts. And there's no merger that you can invent where Tinmouth, with 613 people, won't end up as a very, very small part of the representation. We're going to be very definitely the tail end of the procession."

Explore the status of school district consolidation efforts around the state:

If the plan is approved, Tinmouth will have one vote on an 11-member board. A school in the new district can't be closed without a unanimous board vote, and with a vote by the town where the school is located.

Act 46 asks Vermonters in neighboring school districts to look at the students across town lines and think of them as their own.

For Tinmouth residents, looking outside the town might be the best way of saving the community.