Vote to consolidate E’town, Westport schools passes

WESTPORT — As of July 1, Westport Central and Elizabethtown-Lewis Central schools will be history.

Voters on Tuesday voted to consolidate the districts, with 90 percent of ELCS voters approving the move with a tally of 421 to 49 and 62 percent of WCS voters giving the OK with a tally of 329 to 199.

WCS Interim Superintendent Josh Meyer said he was pleased with the high turnout of more than 1,000 voters between the two districts.

“I think with those kinds of numbers, we can feel pretty confident that the community really voiced their opinion at the ballot box and we can feel comfortable moving forward, that this is what the community wants to do,” he said.

Voters also chose to have their new district overseen by a seven-member school board, though the results of a proposition on the terms of office were not available by press time.

The ballots from both ELCS and WCS were counted at Westport Central with State Education Department representatives on hand.

“I’m appreciative of the voter turnout, which has been historic,” ELCS Superintendent Scott Osborne said.

“The community has spoken, quite clearly, and in the months ahead we’ll work to merge our two schools into one, as the new district will take effect on July 1, 2019.”

He expressed appreciation to all who participated in the lengthy process that culminated in Tuesday’s results – community members, employees, and students in both districts.

“The discussions and the discourse, though difficult at times, proved to be valuable in finding solutions for the greater good,” he said.

“As a community of learners, that’s something that we should all be proud of.”

Very hopeful

The turnout for the referendum at both schools was high; with about an hour and a half to go on Tuesday evening, ELCS had seen 430 voters cast their ballots.

That was comparable or slightly higher than at the non-binding referendum held in October, Osborne said.

“The mood is very positive, very high, very hopeful,” he said at that point.

In April 2013, ELCS went public with its desire to consider consolidation with another school district.

Osborne, who has been involved with that aim all along, said he overheard speculation Tuesday over what a consolidated district would be named, what school mascot would emerge.

“Complete families have come out to vote that I haven’t seen since I was principal 10 years ago,” he said.

The referendum coincided with a basketball game and fifth-grade chicken-and-biscuit dinner, he noted.

“The flow (to the polls) has been constant,” he said at about 6:30 p.m. “Civic participation has been strong.”

More divided

At Westport Central, 555 voters had turned out in October for the “straw poll” vote.

“I think we’re on pace to get there, maybe exceed it by a little bit,” Meyer said at about 6:45 p.m.

A total 450 had voted at that point, and he expected more to cast their ballots after a chorus and band concert that was going on.

The community there has been more divided on the merger issue than in Elizabethtown and Lewis — the ELCS tally was 399 to 73, while in Westport it was 397 to 198, very similar to Tuesday’s vote.

So the mood at WCS on Tuesday wasn’t as light, Meyer said.

“I really think we’re just looking for as much community participation as we can get,” he said, noting that the larger the turnout, the more representative the results would be of district residents’ feelings as a whole.

The idea of merging with ELCS leaves many students apprehensive, Meyer noted.

Students in the upper grades would rather complete their high school experience where they are, he said.

But he’d spoken with a student earlier Tuesday “who I think would classify himself as against” consolidation but told him if the vote went the other way he would absolutely involve himself in making the change work.

“I find that a little bit inspirational,” Meyer said.

State ed protocol

WCS and ELCS have shared various services for some time; some sports teams are already made up of students from both.

The districts performed a pre-merger study a few years ago that predicted enough positive outcomes that the two school boards voted to hire a consultant to conduct a more complete probe.

Merger-study committees in each district met monthly for most of the past year, focusing on such topics as finances, programs and transportation.

Public meetings and forums encouraged community input at both WCS and ELCS.

Both school boards had supported consolidation, as did Osborne and Meyer.

Their decisions were driven by financial issues that affected programming for students, upkeep of facilities, tax rates and other factors. Both districts have seen numerous cuts in recent years, and more would be coming should consolidation fail, district leaders said.

Now, the consolidated district will become operational July 1.

Night Editor Ben Rowe contributed to this report.