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Guest editorial: The bigger issue

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Posted on June 7, 2018 |
By Emerson Lynn



Dan MacArthur is a member of the Marlboro School Board, which oversees the town’s elementary school. The school has 76 students, or a little over eight students per grade. St. Albans City Elementary, by comparison, has almost 800 students.

Mr. MacArthur represents one of about 44 schools in Vermont that depend on small school grants to keep the doors open. The grants have been available since the 1990s and as school enrollments decline their importance has increased. Mr. MacArthur is urging the State Board of Education to resist the current effort to restructure or eliminate the grants. He says the fate of his school hangs in the balance.

“Do we want communities to remain small and vibrant? … Close down these little schools, people are no longer going to be moving here. So, you know, we’ve got to decide which way to go,” he said.

This is the debate Vermont doesn’t want to have, and it tracks at a variety of levels.

Marlboro, like much of Vermont, is highly rural and home to few people; Marlboro’s population is right around a thousand people. There is little or no industry and the prospects of growth are minimal.

Mr. MacArthur is right in that if the school is closed and the students are bused elsewhere that Marlboro loses; if the town struggles to maintain the population it has, then closing the school makes the prospects dimmer.

This is a story being repeated throughout Vermont. The more rural the town, the greater the challenges. It’s also part of our history; Vermont has almost 83 percent of its population that lives in a rural setting. We’re the most rural state in America.

We have towns with such small populations that in most states, they would not exist. That, too, is part of our history and attributable to an agricultural past that no longer exists at the same level.

We’re trying to adjust.

But we’re also prisoners of where we sit. Mr. MacArthur sits on the Marlboro School Board and he is vested with the responsibility to protect what still exists in Marlboro. Mr. MacArthur’s example is prevalent throughout the state. He’s not advocating for something that contributes to Marlboro’s growth, he’s advocating for something the would prevent further deterioration.

No one blames him, or others, for making the same argument.

If the argument were confined to Marlboro, that would be one thing. It’s not. The small school grant is paid by all Vermont taxpayers, and keeping schools open is also the responsibility of taxpayers statewide.

But the argument goes beyond schools to a vision of how Vermont addresses its vulnerabilities, specifically life in rural Vermont.

It’s a focus on capacity, and strength, and applicability and it can’t be done town by little town. It has to be done regionally — towns have to align with other towns, counties have to realign with other counties.

We also cannot allow ourselves to be drawn down the rabbit hole of cost comparisons. Marlboro, for example, may be able to show that its per pupil costs are the same as some larger schools. But the issue isn’t just costs, it’s educational opportunity. We should put a higher value on the school’s ability to offer languages, or higher math classes, etc. We should be looking at our educational systems as something that could be better than what they are.

That requires a vision that extends beyond keeping things as they are, which is little more than inertia.

This is the somewhat undefined or unintended mission of the State Board of Education as it considers how the small school grants should be divvied up. There are instances in which small schools are so geographically isolated that consolidation is not a realistic option. But in cases where consolidation is a possibility, the board needs to push the schools in that direction.

Not only would it save money, it helps focus the conversation where it needs to be focused, which is on the broader discussion as to how our rural areas can be more competitive. Demographic trends nationally show that our youth are moving to urban areas, to large cities with the amenities they desire. How do we compete?

Education is the dominant variable in any equation the state might develop. Schools absorb much of the available money and much of the bandwidth of any economic development discussion. But we too often let schools be the start  and the finish of such discussions, and that’s a mistake. When we forego the links beyond the classroom, we limit the potential. We never have the “what if” discussion. We’re too preoccupied with turf protection.

This is not the fault of the MacArthurs who want to protect the Marlboros of Vermont. They are not being given the latitude to think any differently, or any bigger. They are doing what they have always done, which is to protect what they have.

That’s the discussion that needs to change.

The State Board of Education also has its focus on education, and the cost thereof. It needs to hold to its mission, which is to push as many schools as it can toward consolidation. In so doing, it also pushes the state toward the larger and more important debate, the one referenced by MacArthur: “We’ve got to decide which way we want to go.”

Indeed.

— Emerson Lynn

St. Albans Messenger

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