Opinion: ANeSU governance merger a bad idea

On Nov. 8, voters in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro will face important choices. One of those choices concerns our schools: How to vote on school district consolidation (Act 46).
This question is complex. There are reasons to vote “yes” (short-term tax incentives; the hope of budget savings; the possibility of freeing up the superintendent’s time to focus less on school board meetings), and also some reasons to vote “no” (the tax incentives are relatively small and only last for four years; the projected budget savings that might result from consolidation are minimal and may not happen).
I’ve decided to vote “No” on the question. These are the reasons:
The proposed school district consolidation is likely to decrease, rather than increase, transparency and accountability (two of the main goals of Act 46). Decisions about everything from budgets to staffing, which now benefit from the oversight of community-level boards, would be centralized — handled by the superintendent and a single 13-member unified district board. Voters would be asked to analyze one budget that would include the operating expenses for all five elementary schools and Mount Abraham Middle/High School, as well as the superintendent’s office.
That budget would also include debt payments for all of the schools that have outstanding debt. The school district budget, (which would initially total about $25,500,000), would be voted on by Australian ballot. There would no longer be an option for community members to debate and amend their local school budgets at an annual school town meeting, as voters currently do in Starksboro and in Lincoln.
It is likely that school district consolidation will diminish the authority that school principals, school search committees and the superintendent have, when deciding which teachers to hire. This change could occur because, in becoming one school district instead of six, the contract rule on this matter could become applicable across all schools, instead of within each school.
A teacher in one school that is reducing the number of staff, could “bump” a less senior teacher, in another school, out of a job — without regard for which teacher is the best fit for the position. By far, the number one most important decision we ever make in schools is who we hire to work with kids. The likelihood that consolidation will diminish a local school’s hiring options is too great a risk.
Eliminating local school boards threatens strong community connections with our schools. We would move from having seven different boards to one 13-member board. Our current board members are 34 citizens, from the five towns, who have deep knowledge and understanding of our schools, and our communities. These 34 citizens work in partnership with principals, with our superintendent and with each other, to define policies and propose budgets for voters that are designed to meet students’ learning needs and to provide taxpayers with an excellent return on their investment.
Board members play a key role in hiring school principals. They also serve as ambassadors for our schools, helping their neighbors understand important school issues and programs. When parents and other community members call with urgent problems and questions, board members help to connect them with the school employees best able to assist them. Fewer school board members, elected by their neighbors, will necessarily mean fewer hands available to perform these essential functions.
Most of the benefits offered for school district consolidation can be better achieved within the school governance structure that we have, without eliminating local school boards and without centralizing control of our schools.
A “yes” vote creates radical, irreversible changes to school governance. Once we lose our local system, it will be nearly impossible to get it back.
There are better ways to comply with Act 46, and there is time to find a better solution. If one or more of our five towns votes ‘no’ on Nov. 8, the proposal will be stopped, and our school boards will have the ability to pause and decide what to do next. Our other options include:
•  Sending a report to Montpelier that shows how the improvements we’re already making will enable us to meet the goals of Act 46 without changing the structure of how we govern our schools.
•  Proposing an alternative form of governance in which schools retain an elected council/board that delegates many duties to a central board, but retains genuine responsibility for such key functions as developing the school budget and hiring the school principal. In the coming legislative session, the legislature may clarify and expand the flexibility that local districts have to create innovative governance structures that meet the goals of Act 46.
•  Proposing a modified unified union district — a merger in which a majority of our five towns could vote to merge, while towns that wish to retain their individual school boards and individual school budgets would do so.
Consolidation is not the only answer, and I do not believe it is the best answer. We do have a choice in this matter.
Editor’s note: Nancy Cornell of Starksboro was on the Act 46 Study Committee for the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union.

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