Stowe Faces Difficult Path To Independent Schools

Mar 26, 2016

Most mornings, Stowe High School Principal Jeff Maher can be seen out in front of the building, greeting students as they get to school. It’s that sense of community that Stowe residents like about their small school, and they don’t want to lose it by merging with another school district.

As local school districts consider options under Act 46, a few are looking into privatizing schools instead of merging with neighboring districts. A group in Stowe is taking a close look at this independent school option.

The Stowe Local Schools Initiative is a group of about a dozen parents, teachers, school directors and other community members. The group has met regularly since last fall to study the viability of transitioning one or more of Stowe’s public schools into independent academies.

The group is working in cooperation with the Stowe School Board which, for the time being, is keeping all its options open when it comes to complying with Act 46. Under the new education law, small Vermont school districts are encouraged to merge to realize some economies of scale. The target number spelled out in the law is at least 900 students per district.

Lisa Senecal chairs the Stowe Local Schools Initiative. She says there are about 740 students in the Stowe School district, and projections show Stowe’s taxes would actually go up if it merged with the two other towns in its supervisory union.

"The one-size-fits-all and the 900 number that’s being encouraged as a merged district size, it just doesn’t apply to everyone and Stowe seems to be one of quite a few towns, or school districts, around the state that it just doesn’t make sense for," she says.

Students file in through the Stowe High School lobby on their way to classes.
Credit Ian Noyes

Senecal says Stowe also bucks the statewide trend when it comes to decreasing enrollment. She says Stowe’s student numbers are going up in the elementary school as well as the middle and high school. And, she says, all three are ranked as high performing schools. Senecal says her group wants to take an honest look at how and if the independent school model could work in Stowe.

"First of all," says Senecal, "we’re not sure whether or not this study is going to show that an independent is even the right path for Stowe. And then, beyond that, we don’t know if we’re looking at an independent school at the elementary level, at the middle/high school level, or could be all three."

In fact, this is the second time Stowe has studied the independent school model. The first study was completed 16 years ago, after the passage of Act 60. Today, Stowe is not the only school district studying the independent school model. Similar conversations are happening in Warren, Manchester and Craftsbury.

Mill Moore is head of the Vermont Independent Schools Association. He says some of those communities have reached out to him for information.

"I think it’s a reasonable part of the due diligence that a school board and a community should go through as they’re looking at all of their Act 46 options," Moore says.

However, Moore says, closing down public schools to reopen as independent academies is not an easy process.

"I represent independent schools," he says. "I do not represent unhappy school districts. And I don’t encourage or discourage any district on this issue. In fact, what I tell them is, if you want to go down this road you’re going to have to overcome a lot of obstacles and work awfully hard."

"School districts are required to provide education to all their children and they have two ways to do that. Either they can choose to operate a public school or they can choose to pay tuition." - Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe

Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe says local school districts don’t have the authority to operate an independent school. These schools would have to be run by their own boards.

"School districts are required to provide education to all their children and they have two ways to do that," she says. "Either they can choose to operate a public school or they can choose to pay tuition. And those are the two options that a district has. So you can’t as a public entity or municipality operate an independent school."

Holcombe says it is up to a school district’s voters to choose to close a public school and tuition students to other schools. And any new independent school would need to be approved by the Board of Education.

"You’d have to close down your public school and the new entity would have to apply to be approved as an independent school in the state of Vermont, in order to be eligible to receive their children in the first place," she explains.

If an independent school were to open in Stowe, committee members say they're committed to maintaining current staff and programs, including special education.

The Stowe Local Schools Initiative says it is committed to keeping the current public school staff and serving all students in town.
Credit Ian Noyes / For VPR

Mill Moore, who heads the Independent Schools Association, says he doesn’t think the independent school model will be a viable option for most communities in Vermont. He says when North Bennington’s elementary school transitioned to an independent school a few years ago, the community got a lot of push-back from the state. And, he says, other school districts should expect the same.