Politically Thinking: Consolidating school governance can be tricky

A committee in the seven-town, nine-school Addison Central Supervisory Union is considering whether to propose to the voters that some or all of the ACSU schools be combined into a Regional Education District or RED. The Jeffords Center, a research institute at the University of Vermont, recently completed a report for the Legislature on voluntary school district merger activity, which provides useful information on the experiences of other districts in Vermont.
In 2010, the Legislature passed Act 153, providing incentives to school districts to merge voluntarily. Since that time, only one Regional Education District has been approved by the voters. This is the Mountain Towns RED, which combined the formerly separate districts of Landgrove, Londonderry, Peru and Weston in south-central Vermont into a single RED. Even before the RED was approved, K-8 students from all four of these towns attended the same school, Flood Brook Union School in Londonderry. All four towns offer high school choice, with students attending high schools such as Burr & Burton in Manchester or Black River in Ludlow. Thus, creation of the Mountain Towns RED did not change the number of school buildings in the district.
Act 153 requires that an RED be approved by the voters in every one of the districts involved, so a defeat in one town can reject the proposal for the entire region. In the past two years, voters in four different areas of the state have rejected proposals to combine separate school districts into REDs. Proposals failed in Addison Northwest, Chittenden East, Franklin West and Orange Southwest. Additionally, study committees in Chittenden South and Southwestern Vermont decided not to proceed with RED votes in their districts.
Thus, since Act 153 was passed, only the Mountain Towns RED, involving four towns that already shared a K-8 school building, has been approved by the voters. The researchers from the Jeffords Center noted that the two principal obstacles to REDs in those instances in which they have been rejected by the voters were concerns about loss of local control and closure of school buildings. These two concerns are likely to be major challenges to the creation of an RED in Addison Central, especially considering a unique aspect of the ACSU, the large share of the district’s population residing in just one town, Middlebury.
State statutes governing REDs require that their boards represent voters in the towns making up the district in proportion to the population of those towns. The 2010 census, the most recent official count available, shows that the total population of the seven towns in the ACSU is 14,721. Middlebury, with a population of 8,496, makes up 58 percent of the district’s population.
Thus, if an RED were established in the ACSU towns, its board representation would likely be very similar to that on the current UD-3 board governing MUHS and MUMS. The UD-3 board has 13 members, seven from Middlebury and one each from Bridport, Cornwall, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. Middlebury electing more than half of the board that governs district-wide middle and high schools is a very different proposition from Middlebury electing more than half of the board that governs separate elementary schools in seven towns.
Voters in the smaller towns in the ACSU district could very well be wary of a proposal for a seven-town RED that would eliminate their local school boards and subject the future of their local elementary school buildings and programs to a district-wide board with a majority of members elected by the voters of Middlebury.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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