Monday night, the town of Stamford, Vermont voted to continue exploring the possibility of a school district merger with its neighbor across the state line – Clarksburg, Massachusetts.
Residents of Stamford – population around 800 – streamed into the a-frame gym at Stamford Elementary School to vote in the special town meeting. The Southern Vermont community is facing pressure from the state to merge with a surrounding school district following an order from the board of education. Act 46 seeks to create larger, more sustainable districts in the Green Mountain State to improve education from PreK to 12th grade.
Cynthia Lamore chairs the Stamford School Board. She’s been on it since 1995, and says the decision to look south to Massachusetts came out of an early meeting to address merger possibilities.
“We were asking the town of Stamford to consolidate with Readsboro and Halifax and into a merger that was called the Southern Valley, and people were afraid that eventually kids would have to bussed north and up over very treacherous highways – weather conditions being a huge concern and factor too, as well as the highway conditions – so people were very, very nervous about entering into that kind of a compact,” she told WAMC.
At that meeting, representatives from Clarksburg reached out to offer themselves to Stamford as merger partners.
“A union with Clarksburg is such a natural thing because the children already work on teams together, they play together, half of their families went back and forth, either grew up in Stamford or grew up in Clarksburg, the other half of their family is in the other town," said Town Moderator Bob Levine. "It’s a pretty clean merger.”
Lamore says using state funding from Vermont and Massachusetts, Public Consulting Group from Boston was brought in to examine the possibilities for a merger.
At the town meeting, voters had to decide between three options presented by PCG.
“Option one was no change, if both schools were just to continue on as they are," said Lamore. "But no change can’t mean no action – Stamford still has to show some kind of participation action toward the Act 46 legislation.”
Option 2 would have seen the two schools merge but retain their current grade configurations.
Option 3 would consolidate Stamford as the PreK through second grade early education center for the two communities and Clarksburg as the third- through eighth-grade school.
Lamore and other town leaders threw their support behind Option 3, saying Clarksburg – a town almost twice the size of Stamford – could offer its students more.
“On the average, Stamford classes are about 10 student, so you can understand that if you had a classroom that was like 22, the kids would be able to have more socialization and participate in the sporting programs and just an overall better social experience for them," said Lamore. "As well as the educational benefits where Clarksburg already has foreign language in their curriculum, so we don’t have that here in Stamford. So they’re getting some advantages, they’re having full-time Phys Ed teachers and art teachers and music, where our people are only part-time because it’s what we can do to just recognize the state minimums.”
Lamore says Stamford Elementary School has around 10 staff members, while Clarksburg has around 15. Stamford’s school system currently runs from PreK to eighth grade and has around 65 students enrolled for the fall. Many Stamford students continue their education in North Adams, at McCann and Drury high schools.
“I don’t have nothing against Option 3, but they’re throwing out Option 1 to look into it more," said Michael Tetreault. He says he’s lived in Stamford for 50 years.
“There’s a lot of us here today who want to look more into Option 1," continued Tetreault. "Readsboro was a certain candidate to come here. Ten miles away, they need a good place to go, we’re open here, we have a good school, we spent lots of money over the years here to give our kids good options. They’re all doing good. Why do we have to leave here, just leave the first two, three grades here? It’s foolishness to me.”
“I think the pushback is that people would like to stay independent if they could to maintain the control, the direct control that they have. But the state is taking that away," said Levine. He addressed questions raised by critics about Stamford’s identity as an isolated school district – a designation that would make the town eligible for specific state grants, and one that school board members framed as unreliable.
“We have no guarantee that come September we will no longer be treated isolated, and if we don’t have an active ongoing plan with the state, they will put us wherever they want us," said the town moderator. "And that’s been the motivation to continue this.”
With 58 yes votes, 29 no votes, and one blank ballot, Stamford approved Option 3 and the continued examination of a merger with Clarksburg. It would be Vermont’s second interstate school district after The Dresden School District, which is shared with New Hampshire and was the first of its kind in the nation. Now, Clarksburg must schedule its own special meeting to confirm more study of the plan on its side of the state line.