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Opinion: School consolidation would dimish local control

Editor’s note: This letter was sent to Rep. Willem Jewett and state Sens. Claire Ayer and Chris Bray.
I am writing about Bill H.883. I have been on the school board in my town for eight years and have a lot of reservations about this bill.
Vermont’s school board members seem to have been made the scapegoat for many of society’s ills, and this bill seems to be the last nail in the casket of these volunteer positions. According to some, we are averse to change, we are irresponsible, we shirk our responsibility to craft reasonable budgets and we take too much of our superintendent’s time. I would argue that sometimes Montpelier speaks out of both sides of its mouth, and tells us to change, but essentially creates policies which inhibit change. Now some want to strip away local control of school boards and create more bureaucracy with H.883, which some claim could cost $11 million.
It irks me when I hear the governor and others complaining about boards being complacent with the status quo, and resistant to newer ideas, such as consolidation. Several years ago we attempted to merge three of the smaller schools in southern Addison County. Ironically, it is the policies of the state which discouraged consolidation. If we were to consolidate our small schools we would lose our “small schools grant,” and therefore the financial savings of consolidation were minimal or nonexistent. Take away small schools grants (totaling about $7 million statewide) and you would see consolidation of our small schools because it would make fiscal sense.
Regardless of how one may feel about the pros and cons of consolidation (I think a case can be made that they are a legitimate use of state funds — especially for geographically isolated schools), the fact is that the state of Vermont pays us to remain small and this fact (not school board ineptitude) has stood in the way of school mergers. Our local school boards are ready to embrace change when it makes sense for our students and taxpayers.
Remember Challenges for Change? A few years ago it was meant to scare boards into crafting budgets with no more than a 2.5 percent increase or else face a penalty. Many of us worked hard to meet the challenge and our only reward was being in a worse position when crafting our budgets the next year. There was no penalty for those who didn’t meet the challenge and it wasn’t mentioned again. We are generally left scratching our heads wondering what it is Montpelier wants us to do, exactly, when they say one thing but do another.
Vermont is doing a wonderful job with its schools. If we were a country we’d be among the top 10 most educated in the world. School boards are doing a wonderful job. Should there be consolidation and do we need to continue to rein in expenses? In my opinion, absolutely. Our school district (Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union) already pools transportation, special education and food service costs. We continue to explore ways to cut expenses through collaboration. All of this happened without Bill H.883.
What I ask of our legislators is to leave it up to our local school boards to know what is right for our towns (we are, after all, taxpayers and parents with vested interests), craft thoughtful policies that don’t stand in the way of change, and follow through with those policies. Change will happen in a thoughtful way and without the expense and blanketed bureaucracy of Bill H.883.
Local control bestows many gifts and is part of what makes Vermont such a special place. Our school board had a treat at this month’s meeting when several of our third- and fourth-grade students who have been working on persuasive writing made presentations to the board about changes they would like to see in our school. Their propositions involved photographic evidence and ranged from air fresheners in the bathrooms to a new art room.
It strikes me that in the same week that the U.S. Supreme Court was lifting the limit on political campaign contributions made by individuals, our students were preparing to have their voices heard in the most fundamental form of democracy imaginable: by speaking in front of a panel of their parents and friends. This is local government at its finest. As democracy in this country gets more and more removed from the lives of all of us, and power is more in the hands of the wealthy elite, this may be the only time some kids get to experience firsthand how decisions in a public institution are made — and they can affect decisions. Can you put a value on that experience? I sure can’t.
Hannah Sessions
Leicester

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