Opinion: With care, ANeSU can move to unification

Regarding K-12 education, the Legislature was faced with several concurrent challenges. We have lost roughly 20 percent of our K-12 population and we heard quite clearly from taxpayers that property taxes were too high. At the same time we know that we need to prepare our students for a future where they are not just in competition with other Vermonters for jobs, they are also competing with students across the globe. In particular, we don’t do well by our students from low-income homes, and our costs for special education are high.
In response to these challenges we moved forward with stronger incentives and pressure for local school districts to become larger and more efficient while at the same time delivering higher quality education for our students. Evidence is that 1,700 is the best size for a school district. We left these difficult discussions up to local communities and avoided deciding for the state just how the size and shape of school districts across the state would look and operate.
We have a very diverse system of districts in Vermont now. For example, in our supervisory union, all students attend Mt. Abe unless they take advantage of the limited school choice options. Mt. Abe is a good school despite the recent administrative difficulties because we have a dedicated teaching staff and a large enough student body to enable a variety of curricula in order to challenge most students.
There is one region of the state that has four high schools that graduate only 61 students among all the schools. With these small student bodies it is difficult to offer enough course variety in order for even advanced students to qualify for admission to the University of Vermont.
In some districts it has been easy to change to the larger integrated school districts and it is likely that all the districts surrounding our Addison Northeast Supervisory Union will vote in strong numbers to quality for the accelerated provisions of Act 46. It has been more difficult for the Mt. Abe district to move in this direction because of the chaos in the wake of the last superintendent’s departure.
Trust, conversation, and consideration will need to grow in order for this district to move in this direction. There is palpable fear of loss of local elementary schools and voice in the determination of the budget. Those fears and concerns about change need to be respected while we work through what our new district looks like.
This fear is not uncommon around the state and unfortunately some are trying to use the provisions in Act 46 to expand the use of vouchers and tuitioning our students. We have a long tradition in Vermont of using tuitioning vouchers in communities that do not operate a high school. Act 46 specifically prohibits the closing of schools or discontinuing the use of vouchers in the process without a vote of the community. We have seen at least two examples of each possibility when Guildhall and Concord voted to close their schools and on the other hand Westford and Elmore voted to discontinue vouchers and join the public school system of a neighboring community. I expect they will not be the only four towns to change how they address education in their communities.
In the meantime it is not helpful to infuse the already difficult challenges that our education system is facing by yelling foul and publishing misleading information for citizens to figure out the best way to educate all the children in their community.
Rep. David Sharpe

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