Editorial: Keep focus on the students

As Addison County residents, and Vermonters across the state, ponder the pros and cons of consolidating school governance, everyone agrees on one point: the focus should be on the students; more specifically, the benefits from implementing the proposed changes should ultimately lead to better outcomes for students.
It’s not easy, however, to determine which factors lead to better outcomes.
School officials will be on the spot to explain, for example, just how consolidating numerous governing boards of each elementary and union school boards into one district board will lead to better educated students. One is not a direct correlation to the other. Rather it’s circuitous and can easily become a compelling distraction to the larger goal.
Ironically, it’s the distractions that will garner the early attention. Here are a few of those distractions that hold importance for various constituencies:
• Fewer board meetings/better coordination:Currently in the Addison Central Supervisory Union school district (Middlebury and the six member schools), there are nine separate school boards which can meet as often as twice a month, though many elementary school boards meet just once a month. Under the new proposal, those nine boards would eventually be consolidated into one district board. That’s no small matter. Preparing for as many as a dozen or more meetings in a month takes time and energy for the administration. Under a consolidated governance plan, two district board meetings a month would be the norm. That’s obviously a big benefit for the administration, but how does it directly benefit students?
• Tax impact: In a recent study just released by ACSU, the tax impact over the five years following consolidation (which would begin July 1, 2017) sees substantially less taxes for most communities. The town of Middlebury would see the least benefit with a decrease of just 2 cents on the tax rate, while Weybridge is expected to see a decrease of $2.13 on their tax rate over those five years. That’s huge, and that single fact could override all other concerns for many voters. Ripton’s tax rate would drop by $1.58 over five years, Shoreham’s by 93 cents, Bridport’s by 53 cents, Cornwall’s by 51 cents and Salisbury would see a tax rate reduction of 47 cents over the five years.
But how could such a decrease in the tax rate improve student outcomes? Again, administrators and elected officials should be ready with answers.
• Keeping small schools sustainable: Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the district—with the current system and with the proposed change to a unified governing district—is how to keep the smallest schools sustainable or whether that is in the best interests of the students. Is it better to have more resources in a larger school, or do smaller schools yield better results? No doubt, results can cut both ways and opinions will differ.
What everyone can agree upon, however, is that it’s good to have that discussion and for the past several decades it’s been studiously avoided. Act 46 is prompting that discussion, while also directing the focus on student outcomes, not what’s best for the town. Three stories in today’s Addison Independentoutline just how such a consolidated system might work and are important reading for the upcoming town-school discussions.
What should also be comforting for residents is the knowledge that each district helps define how such rules would work in their district. In ACSU, the proposal is to have a 13-member consolidated board whose representation would be based on population. That means Middlebury would have seven members on the board with one each from the other six towns. No town school could be closed without the approval of 10 out of the 13 members. That’s a fairly high bar to hurdle and it’s simply not likely to happen any time soon. That’s good and by design. The objective here is not to consolidate schools, but to achieve the most cost-effective system that yields the best results.
But, again, even the idea of school closings in the distant future is a distraction. The challenge for area residents — as boards push toward accelerated board mergers — is to press school officials to explain how each aspect of the proposed changes yields higher outcomes for Vermont’s students. If they can do that, the mergers will likely be successful. If they can’t, voters will let them know.
Angelo S. Lynn

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