Editorial: Revolution in our schools?

While Vermont’s junior senator Bernie Sanders is proclaiming a political revolution in his race for the Democratic presidential nomination, a quieter revolution is underway within Vermont’s schools. Act 46, passed last spring, is changing how our schools operate, hopefully for the better. The first step is unified governance, which was recently embraced by three area school districts, but that could be just the tip of the iceberg.
One perspective of that story can be viewed through the lens of the Leicester Elementary School.
Leicester, a town of 1,100 people in southern Addison County, has seen its student K-6 population drop from a peak of about 125 students 15 years ago to just under 50 this past year. The economic inefficiency today is obvious, with the cost per pupil ranging around $14,303. Gone are full-time art, foreign language or music teachers, supplanted by shared teachers from within the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union. And because costs were increasing and revenues decreasing, the school board was looking at further cuts to core programs in its $1.05 million budget. According to school board members at Tuesday night’s Town Meeting, without Act 46 the school’s future looked bleak.
Act 46 became a lifeline for the school. Unification would secure Leicester’s small school grant, insure efficiencies of scale with the larger unified district, and allow the promise of improved academic performance with the district’s proposed $22.6 million budget. At the encouragement of the school board, the town joined the Otter Valley Unified Union School District this past November, which was approved by all member towns. The transition also meant that a unified district budget was voted on for the first time at Tuesday’s Town Meeting.
The unified union budget passed overwhelmingly, and with it the Leicester Elementary School board held its last official annual meeting at the historic Leicester Town Hall with about 30 people in attendance.
School board member Hannah Sessions noted the bittersweet moment. “It’s kind of sad,” she said of the transition to the single board that would henceforth operate under a single budget, “but we know it’s the right thing to do and we’re really optimistic.”
The discussion touched on what was next. Leicester will have two members (one representing the town and another at large delegate) on the unified district board, giving the town good representation. And the existing elementary school board (like most) will stay in effect for the first year of the transition. After a few questions about the new board structure and community involvement, the discussion morphed into new opportunities: the prospect of elementary school choice in which a student from a small school (Sudbury and Whiting are smaller than Leicester, while the Neshobe Elementary School in Brandon has 400-plus students) could potentially attend a larger school and vice-versa, if parents felt a child would better thrive in a small school; of taking Leicester’s project-based learning programs (which have received statewide recognition for excellence) and expanding them to potentially attract students from other schools; of being able to bring more extensive art, music, technology or foreign language programs back into the school’s academic offerings; of having all district elementary students arrive at the district middle school at similar learning levels.
The transition happened spontaneously. From feelings of doubt and nostalgic melancholy sprung the excitement and energy of hope and promise, all in the matter of a few minutes at Town Meeting. Such is the source of creativity, innovation and transformation that could be the fruit of Act 46. More than just a measure to consolidate school governance, the law has the potential to revolutionize Vermont’s schools to match the needs of the 21st Century, if we are bold enough to let it happen.
Angelo S. Lynn

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