Since the late 20th century, there just haven’t been many schools in Essex County. The four biggest towns, Concord, Lunenburg, Brighton, and Canaan, all have their own schools. And until the last decade, two small-town schools remained, one here in Guildhall and one in East Haven. Most of these late 20th century schools have been elementary only, with middle and high school students tuitioned out–the two exceptions were Canaan and Concord. A few years ago, after several protracted and quite bitter citizen battles, the high school in Concord, Vermont closed. One high school remains in the entire county, in Canaan, a town in the furthest corner of northeast Vermont, abutting Quebec and New Hampshire.
Essex County’s most recent school closure was here in my little town of Guildhall, the county’s shire municipality. (East Haven closed its elementary school in 2011). In 2015, voters elected to shut down our K-5 two-room school built in 1957, and at the end of the 2016 academic year, the school shuttered its doors forever. This was an emotionally wrenching decision for Guildhall citizens. Although most hated the idea of losing our school, all understood that a budget of close to $800,000 for educating 20 elementary school kids and about 9-10 other high schoolers, just wasn’t sustainable.
Just 20 kids in the school! But Guildhall’s educational system, for much of its history, had been far more extensive, populated, and robust. Starting in 1789, the Town founders established the first school at the Block House near the Village. Through the remainder of the 18th century and spanning the 19th, the school districts, schools, and school teachers divided and multiplied to serve Guildhall’s much-larger population of children who had to walk to school.
According to Patricia Rogers’ The History of Guildhall, Vermont, there were as many as 8 different school districts within the town, with six different school buildings, by the late 19th century. District #4 was located in Guildhall Village and known as the Essex County Grammar School. When the school districts all consolidated into one in 1957 (with a newly constructed, modern building), the Village School was conveyed to the county. It became the home of the County Extension Service, underwent a major restoration, became the new home of the Essex County Sheriff’s Department, and also now houses (on the 2nd floor) my satellite law office!
By 1957, the multiple school buildings and districts scattered throughout Guildhall had closed and consolidated, with all students enrolled in a single district, in a newly constructed building, which consisted of two rooms, a kitchen, and a large playground. At the new site, the school remained a stable constant, albeit with a steadily declining enrollment, until voters decided in 2015 that something had to give. (The first year after closure, the total school budget dropped by about 50%, a dramatic savings). There was a profound sense of loss when voters took this momentous step, and it has changed our town and added to the overall sense of decline.
Even though the school itself closed at the end of the 2016 academic year, the Guildhall School District has remained intact and meeting regularly, largely to oversee its own dissolution, by entering into a merger with a unified school district (the NEK School Choice District), consisting of 10 other Essex County municipalities. With the new unified district (NEK Choice), each participating town gets one representative to that entity (with the exception of Kirby, which gets two reps). That person is elected at Town Meeting for a three year term, and represents the interests of our kids and parents at regular meetings.
On December 13, 2018, the Guildhall School District met at the Town Office for the last time. It was a rather solemn session, and not well-attended. Present were two out of the three school board members (Patty Brown and Karen Caron), the Guildhall Town Clerk and Treasurer George Blakeslee, a representative from the supervisory union, and oh yes, I was there. Although I was once the School District Treasurer, I have no official role now, and showed up exclusively for the historic occasion.
At the meeting, the board members discussed the new governance system, finalized and signed off on the documents transferring the school district’s assets to the new unified district and then formally dissolved itself. (The school building itself by this time had been sold off to a private owner). I asked the board to memorialize, in the minutes, that the 200-year old archives of the school district, including old enrollment and attendance records, be preserved where they are now, and not disposed of. (They sit in two old vaults at the Town Clerk’s office now. Some day, time allowing, I will pore over them.)
I took some pictures and then the meeting was adjourned. End of an era.