Editorial: Don’t stop now, your community needs you

In the wake of Town Meeting Day, residents may think their exercise in democratic responsibility has been fulfilled. Not so. On the contrary, in almost every town there are important issues that require continued public conversation and engagement.
Certainly that’s the case with the communities whose school budgets were defeated.
The five towns of Addison Northwest Supervisory Union (Vergennes, Panton, Waltham, Ferrisburgh and Addison), and Addison Northeast Supervisory Union (Bristol, Monkton, Starksboro, Lincoln and New Haven), plus the elementary schools in Monkton, Ferrisburgh and Bristol, have much work ahead as they respond to the voters’ direction — or lack thereof. In the case of the Bristol Elementary School, public comments would seem to suggest that a significant factor in the vote against the budget was because it cut too many teachers. Meanwhile, the ANeSU budget proposal was less expensive than the current spending plan, and was soundly rejected, largely, voters said at town meeting, because of their frustration with a lack of transparency and communication from the top brass.
In the ANwSU budget vote, the 11 percent hike in spending would seem self-explanatory. And yet, ANwSU Superintendent JoAn Canning says she has heard that some residents voted against the budget because the cuts were too deep. There are valid reasons why that budget is up 11 percent, but getting voters to agree to a budget that jumps triple the state average will require extraordinary public outreach, if not a minor miracle or two.
The answer to each budget conundrum lies in the public process.
Residents want clear, concise and transparent answers to their questions and they want to engage in a forthright conversation about their school — its  strengths and shortcomings,  its future and the best move forward. The challenge the boards face is doing that while also reaching a majority of town and school district voters. Nor is it solely the boards’ responsibility; being informed and part of the community discussion is also the responsibility of each voter.
Not all issues that deserve continued dialogue and discussion involve town or school budgets.
In Middlebury, the upcoming ID-4 (Mary Hogan Elementary School) annual meeting on April 8 will decide whether the annual meeting would generate more public attendance and participation if it were moved to Town Meeting Day and if the budget vote were done by Australian ballot. It‘s an important issue largely because the attendance at the school’s annual meeting has averaged a couple dozen or so for the past decade or more. That’s a pitiful turnout in a town of 8,000 residents voting on a budget that this year amounts to $6.7 million. Regardless of whether the budgets are responsible or not (and most have been relatively frugal in recent years), that so few voters are deciding the budget and performance of such a large elementary school should be questioned and a better process examined.
Residents in Addison County also have a role to play in studying the potential of school consolidation. Addison County is noteworthy because we have an unusual number of small rural towns supporting several very small, inefficient schools. Addison County’s 23 towns have a combined population of roughly 35,500, compared to Franklin County’s (also largely rural with an agriculture-based economy) 15 towns with a combined population of roughly 47,000. With roughly one school per town, numbers tell part of the story. Addison County is also noteworthy because its geography is largely absent of impediments to consolidation, with the exception of Granville and Hancock on the eastern side of the Green Mountains. In short, the potential for consolidation — and significant savings and improved educational outcomes — is significant.
That discussion is not yet well framed. At issue are ideas proposed under H.361, a bill that originated in the House Education Committee and which was approved unanimously about 10 days ago. It now faces questioning and challenges from several other committees in the House and Senate, though expectations are that the bill has a good chance of passage in some modified form by the end of this session. If that holds true, it is likely that incentives for schools to consolidate in some form will be one of the key provisions; it is also likely that those schools who consolidate early stand to gain the most in terms of economic incentives. Financial incentives are not the reason to move quickly, however. Rather, the prospect of improving educational opportunities for students is the issue that should motivate parents and teachers to seriously consider the potential and act accordingly.
That will take intense public discourse and participation and, as always, the more effort put into the discussion, the better the outcome. Communities would be wise to act now to form a joint town-school committee and be prepared by first becoming informed.
Angelo S. Lynn

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