As school district mergers grow more complicated, there is an elephant in the room and it has company: Phantoms, Marauders, plenty of Blue Devils and even a Golden Horde.
Act 46, a law designed to promote educational equity, opportunity and efficiency, has started to provoke questions about school identity as district mergers involving multiple high schools have quickly become the new normal.
What does it mean for athletic teams?
"That is the big unanswered question," said Bob Johnson, associate executive director of the Vermont Principals' Association, which oversees high school athletics in the state."When Act 46 came in, I don't think there was a whole lot of thought that was given to what was going to happen with various (high) schools and their sports teams, and now that it is beginning to happen there's a lot of questions around it," he said during a recent interview.Johnson, who oversees student activities — including athletics — for the VPA, said he saw this one coming."I remember saying: 'This is going to rear its head,' and it is finally starting to," he said.
On April 11, voters in three Vermont communities — Chelsea, Bethel and Rochester — approved a plan to close their local high schools as part of a broader merger proposal that remains in limbo because it was rejected by voters in Royalton.
A week later, the state Board of Education blessed a plan that could lead to the closure of Black River Union High School if voters in Ludlow and Mount Holly go along during separate votes set for May 30. The proposal essentially calls for Ludlow and Mount Holly to merge with the Mill River Unified Union School District, which is anchored by Mill River Union High School.
In May, the state board will be asked to approve a plan that could lead to the closure of Cabot High School. Unless the board balks, that proposed merger, which contemplates a single district anchored by two high schools — Twinfield and Danville — will be on the ballot in Cabot, Danville, Plainfield and Marshfield on June 20.
Johnson said he recently fielded several calls about the latter merger and it wasn't because of the proposed closure of Cabot High School, or because he once served as principal in Danville. It was because school officials wanted some assurance that the VPA would permit two high schools in the same district to field separate teams in the same sports.
"It was a big issue," he said.
Johnson said there is probably no reason the Twinfield Trojans and Danville Indians can't coexist within the same school district, but they'll have to get permission from the VPA's 11-member Activity Standards Committee just the same.
"I don't see any significant issues," he said.
That's about as clear a read as you're going to get from the VPA these days because Johnson said the committee has opted not to craft a one-size-fits-all policy for dealing with what could be an unprecedented wave of potentially precedent-setting mergers.
"There's no boiler plate outline for this," he said. "It would be fine if all Act 46 proposals were the same, but they're not."
'BRINGS OUT A PASSION'
On Town Meeting Day, voters in Poultney, Proctor and West Rutland approved the creation of the Quarry Valley Unified Union School District; one that, for the foreseeable future, would have three high schools.
Next month voters in Northfield and Williamstown will be asked to approve a merger that contemplates retaining two high schools. Both communities will vote on that proposal May 2.
But for this month's "no" vote in Royalton, where a petition for a revote is already in the works, three high schools would have combined into one and a fourth, in Chelsea, would have closed completely in favor of offering school choice to parents of high school students.
Three different mergers, three different structures and that's even before you get to more nuanced Act 46-inspired ideas that have been floated around the state. Those ideas have ranged from developing high schools with specific curricular focuses that cater to the varied interests of students in multi-town districts, to allowing students and staff to travel between high schools. At least one merger committee toyed briefly with the idea of hosting freshmen and sophomores on one campus and juniors and seniors on another.
All were largely theoretical conversations by committees that generally believed decisions were best left to boards that hadn't yet been elected.
That has created a chicken-and-egg problem that Johnson said prompted members of the VPA committee — a mix of principals and athletic directors from around the state — to wait and weigh requests on a case-by-case basis.
"Is there flexibility? Absolutely," he said. "But, we're looking at these districts and saying: 'Come back to us with specific proposals.'"
At the moment, Johnson said, nothing is off the table, including the possibility of grandfathering sports teams in communities, like Chelsea, that have voted to close their high schools, or Cabot, which could soon agree to do the same.
"That would be a creative proposal that would have to come in and, to be honest, I don't know what the answer to that would be," he said.
Johnson predicted the committee will soon be forced to decide.
"We're getting to a point in the program where we are going to see some proposals in the very near future," he said.
How many could depend on whether voters with deep-rooted interests in their local high school sports teams fear a merger could threaten something they hold dear.
Call it the "rebel" factor, because Johnson is among those who doesn't discount a theory that South Burlington School Board's decision to change the school's controversial team name is partly why that community is still struggling to pass a school budget.
"(The name change) certainly didn't help," he said. "(High school) athletics brings out a passion in every community. People take their local teams very seriously."
Johnson won't get any argument from Rama Schneider, who serves as chairman of the Williamstown School Board and heads the committee recommending the merger of school districts in Northfield and Williamstown.
Both communities have their own high schools, and — with the VPA's blessing — both would continue to field mostly separate sports teams under the plan advanced by the merger study committee.
While dwindling numbers prompted Northfield and Williamstown to jointly field a girls' soccer team under a cooperative team arrangement approved by the VPA, committee representatives from both communities expressed a strong desire to retain their separate athletic identities while exploring ways to collaborate academically.
The alternative would have been the kiss of death, according to Schneider.
"I've met parents who say: 'I was born a Blue Devil, I grew up a Blue Devil and my kid is going to be a Blue Devil,' and they aren't joking," he said, recalling a pair of dust-ups that saw angry parents mobilize over feared changes to Williamstown's blue-and-white color scheme.
It is why Schneider doesn't pass on the chance to pump up an intra-district rivalry he hopes will continue if the voters approve the merger.
"I would love nothing better than to see a subway series between the Northfield Marauders and the Williamstown Blue Devils," he said.
It is also why, Schneider said, committee members established a high bar for changing grade configurations in the schools and an even higher one for closing any of them.
"We're not closing schools," he said. "That isn't our plan."
The bar is even higher in the newly approved Quarry Valley Unified Union School District, where closing the high schools that are home to the Poultney Blue Devils, the Proctor Phantoms or the West Rutland Golden Horde would require the unanimous vote of the new school board and an affirmative vote of the targeted school's community.
Johnson said he is eager to hear what those communities have in mind and curious to see what becomes of the White River Unified Union School District that ran into a roadblock in Royalton this month.
White River Superintendent Bruce Labs said a petition drive that could force a revote is already afoot in Royalton and school officials in Bethel and Rochester just met to decide how to proceed as a twosome if the Royalton effort fizzles or fails.
Ironically, Royalton-based South Royalton High School would have absorbed students who now attend Whitcomb High School in Bethel and Rochester High School, while Whitcomb would have served as the designated middle school for all three communities.
However, in addition to shipping out their middle school students as part of a merger that was a financial wash for Royalton, the local school's "SoRo" name would have been changed and the school no longer would have been home to the "Royals."
The merger might have failed anyway, but Labs said those looming changes likely prompted some to vote "no."
"There's no doubt in my mind that was in the minds of some (voters)," he said, noting residents in Bethel and Rochester have already come to terms with their changing athletic identity.
With the exception of boys' basketball, the two schools jointly field teams under the student-suggested name Whitchester Mountaineers.
Labs said he is hopeful a revote will be successful, but is worried that it won't be. The numbers, he said, aren't trending in the right direction and the merger plan now on life support could have addressed that.
South Royalton graduated 38 seniors last year and there are only 26 students at Rochester High School.
"This isn't about colors and mascots and it's not about (team) names. It's about creating more courses and better opportunities for kids," Labs said.
The VPA's Johnson understands and appreciates Labs' argument.
"It's not that it (school consolidation) shouldn't happen. I've been a principal, it should happen," he said.
However, when it comes to high school athletics, Johnson said some mergers could fail because of deep traditions.
"The issue isn't the kids, it's the adults," he said. "People hold on to their small community schools and they don't want to let go."
While Act 46 forced the issue, Johnson said tiny high schools like Rochester and Chelsea were destined to close anyway and several others will likely follow suit. That, he said, will force the VPA to take a hard look at Division 4 athletics, possibly elevating some schools to Division 3 as they pick up students from schools that close.
According to Johnson, that may yet be the case with South Royalton if the merger with Bethel and Rochester somehow gets back on track and it could be the case with Twinfield if the merger with Cabot and Danville is approved.
For the moment, the VPA is in wait-and-see mode, touting the flexibility that allowed the organization to nimbly respond to declining enrollment a decade ago with rule changes that have spawned a growing number of cooperative teams.
"We're flexible," Johnson said. "Our rules can change at any time."
The problem the "member-driven organization" faces, in Johnson's estimation, is that it is feeling its way along, waiting for something to react to.
"This is new ground," he said. "There's no precedent for us to go with."
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