Eric Davis: School unification anti-democratic

The consolidated school districts required by Act 46 are a threat to the values of democracy, local control, and sense of place in small towns all over Vermont.
The legislative process that led up to the enactment of Act 46 last spring was not sufficiently thorough. The key parts of the law were written in haste at the end of the session. Members of the Legislature did not have enough time to consider the consequences of the bill, both intended and unintended.
What started out as an attempt to deal with increasing property taxes morphed into an attempt to improve educational opportunity by creating larger school districts. However, there is no consistent evidence, either from Vermont or from consolidation efforts in other states, that larger school districts will result either in decreased property taxes over the long-term, or in improved educational outcomes for students.
Larger districts will seriously detract from the important Vermont values of local control and local participation in governance. The proposed Addison Central district is a good example. Currently, there are eight elected school boards in the seven towns within the district: one district-wide board for the middle school and high school, and one local school board for each town’s elementary school.
Under the proposed charter for the new district, all the towns except Middlebury will substantially lose representation on school matters. Local school boards of three to five members will be replaced with one member elected from each of the six small towns, who will join a 13-member district-wide board that will include seven members from Middlebury and one member from each of the other six towns in the district.
Decisions about the elementary schools outside of Middlebury will no longer be made locally, but rather centrally, by a board the great majority of whose members do not live in the towns where the schools are located. This is not a good model for encouraging citizen participation and citizen involvement in school governance. Appointed local advisory councils with no decision-making power are no substitute for elected boards that can make decisions and are accountable to voters at town meeting.
Consolidation of school governance is particularly problematic for small towns such as Cornwall (where I am a resident) and Weybridge, for whom the local school is about the only local institution remaining. These towns, and many others like them around Vermont, have no stores and no post offices. The school is the one place in town that everyone in the community still has in common, whether or not they have children enrolled there.
By destroying the link between local communities and school governance, Act 46 threatens the sense of place which is so important to rural Vermont, and such a valued part of the state’s heritage. In my opinion, local democratic control is far too important a value to be given up for the short-term property tax reduction of a few hundred dollars a year associated with the first few years of school district consolidation.
The existing structure of multi-district supervisory unions combines local democratic control at the elementary school level with the advantages of larger schools at the middle school and high school levels. There are possibilities within that structure for making more educational opportunities for programs such as foreign languages available to elementary students in small towns, through shared staff, online video conferencing, and public school choice options.
The existing structure does not prevent local boards from reducing property taxes. Elected school boards can decide, among other things, not to replace teachers who retire or resign, to offer buy-outs to staff approaching retirement age, or to insist, in future contract negotiations, that employees pay a larger share of their health insurance premiums.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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