Opinion: School governance unification is very democratic

I have thought a lot about Professor Davis’ Dec. 10 commentary, “School unification anti-democratic” — I’ve been thinking about it for the past decade actually — or as long as I have been serving on my local school board, and I have to counter his approach to Act 46. I believe Act 46 is, in fact, the only way we can maintain democracy in our small towns and on our school boards. I know it isn’t perfect, it is cumbersome and expensive, but it is what will ultimately save my small school.
Change is hard, but we’ve got to adapt to the times, and I think a larger, more impersonal board is what is needed. We have seen the population of Leicester School go from 120 to 50 kids in a decade. Our board saw the writing on the wall and attempted consolidation with every one of our neighbors, to no avail. Vermont is considered one of the more corrupt political states — not because we are greedy power-mongers, but because we are such a small state that we know or are related to so many folks we do business with.
How can we ask local school board members and the public to be impartial about the future of a school when they may have kids, nieces or nephews, or grandkids at the school? Or when their family member, friend or neighbor might work at the school? And so we are stuck spinning our tires, afraid to upset the status quo in our small towns.
Through our many failed merger attempts we were given the silent treatment, referred to as the “educated elite” as well as too “high needs,” and told our town didn’t have the same “family values.” All because we saw strength in numbers and wanted to do what was best for our students and our taxpayers.
Small town democracy is not always pretty — sometimes it looks a lot like short-sightedness, parochialism and bullying. My hope is that a larger board will be able to make decisions with the best interest of students, ALL students, in mind, and their fate won’t be held hostage by the sentiment of a few loud individuals.
This idea of ALL students came up repeatedly when we at the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union were drawing up the Articles of Agreement for our new Unified District under Act 46, and I was moved by people’s shared sense of purpose and caring for all of the students in the district. After years of feeling vulnerable as a small school, and struggling to maintain important programs, Act 46 provides a home for us, and allows us to make plans for the future.
The idea of elementary school choice within the district was appealing to all, and this places value on what our small schools have to offer. No school will be closed within four years of the passage of Act 46, and after that hopefully there will be a place for the small schools within our educational landscape. If it is deemed there is not, then at least we will have a voice in these future deliberations.
Were Act 46 to fail, we would lose our Small Schools Grant, and undoubtedly many small schools would fold, tuition out their kids, and then townspeople would have zero say on the educational future for their students, as well as the tax liability for their town.
I am already sentimental about my decade spent on my local school board and with the passing of Act 46 and the evolution of eight boards into one; I am truly sad to see this tradition go. I see a lot of positives, however: I see the potential to share staff and students between schools, I see all that my small school has to offer the district, I see more equal opportunities for students, I see a more even tax rate for citizens, and I see a board than can objectively determine the direction of the district with the best interest of all students in mind. Plus, with 30-plus school board members per supervisory union no longer needed, I see hundreds of volunteer hours made available to the community.
When people come together with the best interest of all in mind, and not just their friends and neighbors, it feels a lot like democracy to me. Even with its imperfections, I hope Act 46 will pass and that working together will call us to be our best selves.
Hannah Sessions

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