For towns such as Elmore, in Lamoille County, school choice is a 140-year tradition. When the town was considering a merger with neighboring Morristown last year, some residents were concerned they'd be giving up that tradition for a tax break. A year later, the town is experiencing the pros and cons of that choice.
Mornings at the Elmore Lake School start with the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem. At Vermont’s last operating one-room schoolhouse, tradition is important.
A year ago, the Lake School became part of the Elmore-Morristown Unified Union School District.
The merger actually predates Act 46, but the process was the same. Both towns held votes – and re-votes – on the issue, the last of which was on Town Meeting Day in 2016. At that time, Elmore was a town divided.
The proposed merger promised a significant drop in school taxes for Elmore, the smaller of the two towns. But it also meant future middle and high school students would lose their school choice. And some people worried it would eventually lead to the closure of the Lake School, which only serves the first, second and third grades.
"There was just so much that seemed to imply that all of this was going to just destroy Elmore completely," says Elmore Town Lister Susan Southall. "And that does not seem to have been the case."
Southall was one of the people who pushed for the revote, after Elmore initially voted against forming the unified union. The subsequent revote did achieve the merger.
Southall notes that with the merger passed, Elmore’s school tax rate has dropped.
"And that, certainly, I think, was quite a pleasant result for a lot of us who voted for it," she says.
But not everyone feels that way.
Jan Miller raised three children in Elmore, all of whom took different educational paths after leaving the Lake School. And now she has a young grandson in town.
"We who supported keeping things the way they were did not see it as a tax issue," says Miller. "We saw it as a rights issue. That it was very important, as Vermonters, to keep the tradition we’ve had for 140 years of school choice."
Many Vermont towns are in the same boat as Elmore, as they consider mergers under Act 46. As the law now stands, towns will forfeit school choice if the newly merged district has a school for those students.
Basically, all students in the new district have to have the same options. Either they all get school choice or none of them do.
And the fate of small schools will be determined by larger, regional school boards rather than town-by-town. Miller worries her town's voice could be drowned out by its larger neighbor.
"We're only 850 residents," says Miller. "And it will be very difficult for us, as a community, to outvote a larger community."
Having already given up school choice, some Elmore residents worry about what else they might lose in the future – including the Lake School.
"How will Morristown feel about supporting a school, [grades] one through three, if they have the facilities to incorporate those students?" Miller asks. "So we're looking at some real changes in the future, and we just don't know yet."
Miller is also a local real estate agent. And she says the merger is changing the makeup of her town. She says some families with children have moved out of Elmore. And new young families aren’t moving in.
"And so I think from that standpoint it has very definitely impacted our community," she says. "Because we just can’t have one demographic. We can’t have all retired people. To be vital we need to have a good mix of young families and retired people and working people. And that’s my real concern going forward."
A year after the Elmore-Morristown merger, there's still plenty of uncertainty, at least among some residents of the smaller of the two communities.
Vermont's Choice: Private Schools, Public Money is a six-part series looking at the Vermont independent school system. Check back throughout the week for more from the series.