The town of Elmore is a small, tight-knit community. But a school district merger decision has divided the town and emotions are running high.
Elmore is probably best known for its state park. The village straddles Route 12, with the town hall and general store on the lake side of the road, and the town offices and one room schoolhouse across the way.
It’s the last operating one-room schoolhouse in Vermont and that’s important to a lot of people in town, including Elmore Store owner Kathy Miller.
"When it comes to our one room schoolhouse, I’m not going down without a fight," said Miller. "And we’re just kind of digging our heels in right now. We don’t have a crystal ball, we can’t look ahead and see what’s going to happen. Because once it’s gone, it’s gone. You’re not going to get it back."
Elmore’s small school is just one of the things ratcheting up the emotions regarding a vote at the end of this month. Actually, it’s a re-vote. Last month Elmore residents turned down a proposal to merge school districts with Morristown, its larger neighbor just up Route 12. But a petition was filed and a re-vote scheduled for the end of this month. In the meantime, the debate has heated up, as resident Sharon Fortune can attest.
"I feel very sad," said Fortune. "Very, very sad, that the lines have become divided and that people have taken stands in a way that is so non-Elmorian, if you will. So not like our community, but boy people are ramped up about this. They are just wild."
But the discussions aren’t all taking place face-to-face in the store and at public meetings, as is typically the case in Elmore. Arguments are happening online, through Facebook, Front Porch Forum, and the online news service Vermont Watchdog.
Proponents of the merger say school taxes in Elmore are rising out of control. They’ve jumped over 60 percent in the past few years. And, they say, without a merger they could go up another 40 percent next year, essentially doubling the school tax burden over a four-year span.
Susan Southall is a lister in Elmore, and is one of the people who pushed for the re-vote. "There have been many, many posts back and forth on Front Porch Forum, and I keep feeling that I’m attempting to correct misinformation," Southall said. "But then the information that I may bring out is being corrected as also being misinformation. So I think the issue has become pretty divisive."
Exactly how property values and tax rates might change, and whether or not the Elmore School would eventually close in a merged district are two of the issues being debated. Other arguments center around the value of school choice.
Currently seventh through 12th graders can go to nearly any school of their choosing with public funding. Elmore pays tuition to other Vermont public schools, and an amount equal to the state average tuition rate for private and out-of-state schools. If Elmore and Morristown merge into a single district, all of Elmore’s middle and high school students would automatically attend Morristown’s Peoples Academy, unless they choose to pay on their own for private school, or apply for a spot at another public school through Vermont’s limited school choice lottery.
The Elmore School only goes through third grade. Then Elmore students go to Morristown Elementary school, at least until they have school choice in seventh grade. Currently, about 80 percent of Elmore’s older students choose to stay at Peoples Academy. But store owner Warren Miller says there have been plenty of families that have utilized school choice over the years.
"We’ve had kids all over Vermont," said Miller. "I mean we’ve had a couple kids from Elmore, when I was on the school board, there were two kids in France. We paid the state average. They paid the transportation and the lodging."
But for many in Elmore, the civil discourse has become decidedly uncivil – especially online. And as a result, some people are just refusing to talk.
VPR reached out to members of Elmore’s school board, the select board chairman and the town clerk. They all refused to talk on the record for fear their comments might be taken the wrong way. They said the attacks have become personal, and they’re no longer willing to speak out on the issues.
Store owner Warren Miller says it just comes down to a matter of respect. "It’s really unfortunate because everybody has an opinion, and everybody should be able to have an opinion," he said. "But you shouldn’t get mad at your neighbor because their opinion isn’t the same as yours. We’re a community. We need to remain a community. We can’t be divided. Scars are going to run deep if people aren’t respectful. And at the end of the day, we need to be respectful of everybody’s opinion."
People on both sides say they hope the tenor will change after the re-vote on Dec. 29. However, that may not be the end of the issue. Both Morristown and Elmore need to approve if a merger is to proceed. The original merger vote narrowly passed in Morristown, and a petition for a re-vote has been filed there as well. That re-vote has yet to be scheduled.