Black River High School students, from Ludlow and Mount Holly, have been studying together at Black River since middle school. But unless a vote held in November is reversed, their school could be closing before some of these students graduate.
Senior Andrea Stevens knows she’ll be graduating from Black River, but she’s afraid her alumni experience will be less than that of her older friends.
"A lot of my friends, they come home for like games and stuff, and I’m not gonna be able to do that," Stevens says. "If the school closes, like we won’t have the sports teams and stuff."
"It's kind of sad," Stevens adds.
In November, Ludlow and Mount Holly voted to form a unified union school district and, in doing so, move toward school choice for all students in grades seven through 12.
Both towns needed to vote in favor of the article for this to happen, and they did — decisively.
In Ludlow, twice as many people voted for the article than against it. Mount Holly voted overwhelmingly in favor of the merger and eventual school closure.
"When you have 130 kids in your seven through 12, it becomes so it – it becomes unsustainable," says Bruce Schmidt, chairman of the Union 39 school board, which oversees Black River High School and Middle School.
"It’s very hard to keep a school with, you know, less students each year," Schmidt adds.
Generations of Schmidt’s family have graduated from Black River High School, and before that, Black River Academy. But now, he says, Ludlow lacks affordable housing and, therefore, young families aren't moving into town.
Ludlow is home to Okemo Mountain Resort. Like resort towns across Vermont, the town ends up sending more property taxes to the state than it gets back to fund its schools, as Schmidt explains: "The town of Ludlow sends close to $20 million to support education in the state of Vermont, and we get a small portion of that back."
Schmidt says it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
"That is a very frustrating thing for the people in this town," he says. "As hard ... that they work for their tax dollars, and then they turn around and give that amount of money. And then at the same time it’s like, 'Well, you can’t have anymore money. You gotta close your school.'"
Schmidt says the state isn’t requiring Black River to close. However, he says if they choose to keep it open he foresees what he calls "death by a thousand cuts" – starting with the elimination of the state small schools grant.
Sharon Bixby also has deep roots in Ludlow. She’s one of the people who circulated a petition that forced the revote on the merger and school closure. She says, although the vote tally seemed decisive, the way the ballot was worded was hard to understand.
"The ballot was so confusing, and I know it had to be that way because of the law," Bixby says. "But people were told that 'either way the school's gonna close – you might as well vote yes.' Well, that’s not really true in my mind."
Bixby says there’s a lot at play when it comes to Act 46, the law mandating small school district mergers. And the rules could change.
"We just think there’s so many things up in the air that it’s best to just stay the way we are, make Black River the best school it can be," she says. "There’s nothing wrong with a small school. There’s many in the state that are thriving and I just think that it — the vote — was too soon and there wasn’t enough information settled within the Legislature."
If the vote is upheld in Ludlow next month, Black River will close within two-and-a-half years. Some people are looking forward to the option to send their students to bigger schools in the area. Some people in town plan to pursue reopening Black River as an independent school.
Either way, Bixby says closing the public high school will have a big impact on Ludlow.
"If all the kids are divided up and some are going to Green Mountain [Union High School], some are going to Woodstock, some are going to Mill River, some might choose to go to MSJ [Mount St. Joseph Academy] – wherever they decide to go, you know, that will be lost; that sense of community will be lost," Bixby says.
The revote in Ludlow is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 6.