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Editorial: To unite or go solo is the thrust of an imperfect bill

As voters across Vermont consider the ramifications of Act 46, the bill that is encouraging school districts to consolidate governance, the first point to concede is that the legislation is not perfect. The second concession to realize is that no proposed legislation would ever be.
What we are dealing with is the art of the possible, and working toward an improved and viable education system one step at a time.
Act 46 has already accomplished much just in the public conversation. School boards, teachers, administrators, students and their parents are talking about real changes in their schools, about being more cost efficient as well as producing better student performance. That’s a welcome change from the annual wringing of hands about how much taxpayers can or cannot afford to spend on our children’s education. Yes, cost is still a core concern, but at least the public conversation these past six months has included improving student outcomes.
That is the promise of Act 46. What the bill gets right is the common sense assumption that running small school districts with five to seven elementary school boards, a unified middle school and high school board of directors, and a supervisory union board (9 boards in the Middlebury-based ACSU system with 74 board members) is not effective. It is unwieldy in management and duplicates needless cost. Moreover, it does not allow for the district to take advantage of scale. In that sense, it is useful to view our multi-million dollar school districts in a business-like context.
That does not mean, however, that consolidating school governance would or should lead to consolidation of every other aspect of Vermont’s school system. And it certainly does not mean that school districts should be run with a business motive. It should be desirable, however, that we have a system that allows for economic efficiencies while also providing the educational foundation our children need to succeed. One should not preclude the other.
Act 46 helps set the stage for improvement in a few key ways:
• A consolidated board would be focused on working with an administration to develop a PreK-12 education that is well-coordinated and designed to improve student performance. It allows school professionals to work more directly on the students’ welfare rather than on the administrative tasks of dealing with multiple school boards.
• And consolidated districts throughout the state could better share resources, ideas, best practices and career-oriented tracks that fit the needs of Vermont’s students and prepare more Vermont graduates for higher education. These are goals we know we must pursue, but Vermont—with less than 50 percent of its graduates attending higher education—is failing those students. We need to do better.
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But all is not rosy with the law.
Consolidated district boards (as represented in the graphic on Page 1 for the Addison Central Supervisory Union) are comprised of board members from each district town according to a democratic representation based on population. In many districts that may work fine, but not in all.
In a recent letter to the editor, Shoreham’s Peter Lynch pointed out that in the proposed ACSU board structure, which is already Middlebury-centric with 7 of 13 board members, Middlebury voters also have influence over the other six members because each representative is voted at large (contrary to how the current supervisory union board is elected, which allows board members from each town to elect a town representative without outside influence.) This has the potential to make the board even more Middlebury-centric. That is a subject board members should address with the Department of Education, with the intent on getting an exemption to the at-large clause or some other mechanism that would assure representative democracy for each district town.
A more central question of consolidated governance is this: How could one member on the proposed consolidated board possibly represent a small town’s interest—whether that be Ripton, Cornwall, Weybridge or Shoreham—with the same effectiveness as the current system which elects a board devoted to its elementary school plus a member on the ACSU board?
The simple answer is that no single person could.
But that is the wrong question to ask.
The more pertinent question is how can the consolidated district board improve a Ripton student’s education in ways that the current system has not?
The answer is in the district’s greater resources. In small schools one of the difficulties is being able to afford enrichment courses like the arts, library sciences, foreign languages, physical education and to provide for essentials such as nursing services and pre-K education. Perhaps taxpayers have made deep sacrifices to this day, but with declining enrollments that may not always be possible. Furthermore, with a consolidated school district, the board and administration can better allocate collective resources to ensure all elementary schools are receiving adequate and equal service in all subjects.
Vermont is privileged to have excellent public schools in most of our communities, but advancing the argument that small elementary schools could not benefit from greater resources points to a lack of imagination, while ignoring the advantages of increased opportunity.
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The carrot the law dangles in front of voters is perhaps the most distasteful part of the bargain. It offers significant tax discounts in the first five years on a declining scale, starting with a discount of 10 cents the first year, eight cents the second, six the third, four the fourth and a two-cent cut in the fifth year. Small school grants are also provided for school districts that pursue governance consolidation—a huge incentive for many small schools. The stick is equally egregious: language suggests the state will force consolidation on any school district that doesn’t comply after four or five years, with a few exceptions granted for those that pass muster with the State Board of Education.
Both are distasteful partly because they have been found necessary to change the status quo. Without them, schools and towns have not voluntarily moved to something new on their own. That’s human nature. Change is hard and communities are not prone to change something they know—even if they complain about it daily, and even if the student outcomes are not as good as they should be—for something they don’t know.
And we don’t know everything about how governance consolidation will work down the road.
We can suppose streamlining the governance system, employing the economics of scale and allowing educational professionals to better focus on our student’s welfare will yield better outcomes, but it is not certain. Rather, it will be a work in progress and all of us—from school administrations to board members, teachers, parents, students and community members—will have to stay connected and committed to a superior public education system. If we stand by that commitment, we’ll be successful.
Act 46 may not be perfect, but it does have the potential to move Vermont’s education system out of the status quo that is, at the very least, inefficient, and into a new arena in which more good things are possible.
Angelo S. Lynn

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