BARRE TOWN — A marriage made in Montpelier was again rebuffed in Barre Town where voters rejected an Act 46-inspired merger and effectively dared the state Board of Education to do something about it.
On a day when their counterparts in Barre easily approved a retooled version of the merger that was derailed by another split decision in 2016, Barre Town voters again spoiled a merger by refusing to embrace the idea.
Town voters, who twice rejected the earlier merger by wide margins, didn’t stray from that script when considering the question for the third time.
Though Barre voters did their part, approving a refined version of the previously failed merger, 1,887-567, it was overwhelmingly defeated, 2,106-1,262, in Barre Town.
That was welcome news to those who sought to undermine a three-district merger they claim the state Board of Education will not impose.
It is a theory that will be tested next week when the state board holds its daylong meeting in Barre. Originally scheduled next Wednesday at Williamstown Middle and High School, the state board will meet a week from Thursday at the Barre Elks Lodge.
The board, which has until Nov. 30 to finalize its statewide school district consolidation plan, could finish that assignment next week and based on the results of Tuesday’s voting Barre and Barre Town will be a prominent part of that conversation.
The state board has made provisional decisions with respect to virtually every other unmerged district in the state and what to do with the supervisory union that includes separately run elementary schools in Barre and Barre Town, as well as jointly owned Spaulding High School is now a question that needs to be answered.
Merger critics have maintained while the now-failed Barre alliance might be “possible” and “practicable” — the metrics written into Act 46 — it isn’t preferable to what now exists and, in their view, isn’t necessary to meet most of the goals of the three-year-old law. They argued another “no” vote would serve notice to the state board and, due to the comparatively large size of the three local districts a merger will not be imposed.
Those on the opposite side of the issue portrayed that stubborn resistance as a massive gamble that would result in a forced merger instead of a voluntary one. In the process, they argued, an estimated $5 million in Act 46 tax incentives would be left on the table and the new district would be forced to operate under state-imposed articles of agreement, not the ones tailored to address many of the concerns they believed led to the first failed vote.
One of those two schools of thought is right, the other isn’t and the state Board of Education that has been threatened with a lawsuit by districts it is poised to merge must decide.
If voting “no” is enough – and to this point it hasn’t been based on the provisional decisions that are pending final approval the math is on both sides.
Barre Town said “no” loudly, but the merger passed in Barre by more than a three-to-one margin and a majority of those who cast ballots in the two-town supervisory union on Tuesday supported the merger, 3,149-2,673.
While the merger vote in Barre was a comparative non-event, the one in Barre Town was the subject of dueling campaigns that continued right up until the polls closed at 7 p.m.
Proponents and opponents of the now-failed merger spent the Election Day seeking to sway voters as they headed into Barre Town Middle and Elementary School to cast ballots. They passed a gauntlet of lawn signs – both for and against the merger – and were offered informational materials to carry into the polling place.
In addition to competing lawn signs, mailings and an election eve robo-call financed by a long-time merger critic, both sides made liberal use of social media with each side accusing the other of cherry-picking information and using “scare tactics” to influence the outcome.
Though the end result was another lopsided loss for a state-sanctioned school district merger, voters interviewed after they cast their ballots expressed mixed opinions about the alliance.
Of three dozen town voters interviewed 20 said they voted in favor of the proposed merger – some more enthusiastically than others – while 15 said they opposed it and one said he refused to answer the question.
The man, who declined to share his name, defended his decision to skip the merger question.
“We have no children and I think it (the merger) is going to happen any way,” he said, even as his wife explained her protest vote.
“It probably will happen anyway, but I still voted ‘no,’” she said.
She wasn’t alone.
Regina Duquette and her mother, Mellie Ladd, both voted against the merger that Duquette said she was tired of hearing about and she believed would result in town taxpayers subsidizing the education of their city counterparts.
“Barre City doesn’t have any money and they want Barre Town to pay for it so the answer is ‘no,’” she said.
George LaRose said a friend persuaded him to vote ‘no’ on the merger and Waldo Mugford said he took his cue from his wife, Lucille.
“I vote the way I’m told,” he said.
Lucille Mugford said her marching orders when it came to voting on the merger were rooted in her belief the town has a superior school system.
“I just think that Barre Town is a lot better than Barre City,” she said, suggesting she wasn’t interested experimenting with a merged system.
Paul Foley, said he didn’t mind paying a premium to support the town’s superior school system and was opposed to a merger whether it be voluntary or compelled.
“I don’t see anything to be gained by it,” he said. “I think the state’s making a mistake forcing districts like this to join together.”
Stephen Brodie and his wife, Janet, both voted against a merger he feared would weaken his ability to influence the school board.
“I like local control,” he said. “The closer it is to home the happier I am.”
Those who voted for the merger were less apt to share their names in a town where there is passionate opposition to changing the current governance structure.
One such woman initially declined to say which side she came down on before confiding that she voted – fingers crossed – in favor of the merger.
“I’m really concerned about the whole bit,” she said. “I don’t trust the state.”
The woman said she was hopeful protections written into the articles of agreement for the merged district would work as advertised if the measure passed.
“That’s what I’m hoping, because I don’t want the state telling us what to do,” she said.
Another woman described herself as a reluctant convert, who voted against the merger two years ago, but believed if the latest version wasn’t approved, it would be imposed on uncertain terms by the state.
“I voted ‘yes,’ not because I wanted to,” she said. “I’m more afraid of what the state will do if we don’t agree to this.”
Steven Keene said it wasn’t the lure of tax incentives that are no longer available that prompted him to vote for the merger.
“I think it will be better for the community at large to have a common voice,” he said, suggesting he was troubled by knee-jerk “no” voters.
“My hope is that we see change,” he said.
“I tend to think people want better for their community not to continue to say ‘no’ to everything,” he said. “My hope is that we see change.”
While Keene wasn’t swayed by the tax incentives Richard Paterson and his wife, Kathleen, were.
Paterson said he believed the system will be merged one way or the other and his preference was to take the state’s money and run.
“If we don’t we’re going to get it (a merger) crammed down our throat anyway,” he said, as his wife nodded in agreement.
Several residents who said they voted voted for the merger – Cynthia Corey and Philip Acebo among them – said they believed the proposed merger would prove educationally and economically beneficial;
“I think it’s probably going to be to the benefit of everyone in the long run,” she said, adding: “I hope.
Acebo, who once taught at Barre Town’s school, noted Barre and Barre Town were once once community and still share a high school. He said he had no trouble with one board being responsible for education from preschool through high school.
“It’s good for both communities in the end,” he said.
Mhairi Paget credited the committee that drafted the latest merger proposal for addressing many of the concerns that doomed the first merger two years ago. She said she comfortably voted for the merger.
So did Judy Benoit, who didn’t come close to forecasting the end result.
“I’ve got a sense it’s going to pass this time,” she said.