Editorial: Tough questions for three towns demand thorough discussion

We won’t get into the weeds of local board decisions, but perhaps a few questions and observations will help community members shape upcoming discussions about some crucial town issues. Those issues affect the Mount Abraham Union school district, where building committee members have proposed a $35 million bond to renovate the high school; in Orwell, where that community has rejected merging with the Fair Haven Union School district under Act 46; and Middlebury taxpayers and patrons of Ilsley Library where board members have proposed a $9.6 million expansion.
At Mount Abe, the proposed $35 million bond would be put before voters this November, just three years after voters firmly rejected a $32.6 million bond for similar renovations. First, however, the committee’s proposal goes to the school board for consideration. That board should resist rubber-stamping the committee’s proposal and take ample time vetting the proposal, pursuing its own due diligence concerning what is essential to the student’s academic outcomes as well as a realistic assessment of what the school community will approve. It does no good to adopt a proposal that is “best for students,” if voters shoot it down for a second time.
Committee members are right (see story on Page 1A) that one of their challenges is to wage a better public relations campaign to explain why it cost so much to rehab the school, but that’s not enough. They must also explain how and why local residents can afford such increases — not only does the property tax rebate system currently favor those least able to pay based on their income, but also because up-to-date school facilities attract stronger growth in a community. The likelihood of future growth, however, poses another sticking point: What are the growth trends of the five towns in the school district, and how easy will it be to convince voters that Chittenden County’s southward expansion would benefit those communities if their educational facilities are up to snuff — and what’s the potential loss if they are not?
We personally toured the school three years ago, and understand the fundamental needs that must be made to that facility. In many respects, it is in dire shape and requires a makeover. But at the end of the day, voters need to believe in the math and how that affects the future of their community. They must also believe their investment is a necessity, and that there is a reasonably good return on that investment.
What they don’t want are namby-pamby explanations that additional sunlight in hallways, or other ameneties, makes students miraculously comprehend physics. If there is proof that is so, show them; if not, better think twice about putting such things on the bill for taxpayers to foot, or come up with a darn good explanation for the cost.
Board members at Middlebury’s Ilsley Library face a similar task: convincing Middlebury residents that a $9.6 million expansion, or a portion of that expense, is the best use of their tax dollar. Ilsley board members, however, have time on their side and the likelihood that the ask from the town will be much lower than the full freight. That’s because the board’s first move is to commission a fundraising feasibility study to see how much of that total can be raised privately.
In previous conversations with committee members studying the library’s renovation, committee members were hopeful they could raise at least a few million to reduce the cost to taxpayers. Even so, Middlebury residents have faced a continual barrage of municipal projects in the past decade (firehouse, police station, municipal building, gym and Cross Street Bridge to name a few of the major expenses) and local taxes are among the highest in the state.
Questions voters will ask are: How much of the $9.6 million is critical to the library’s success? If the bond was rejected, would library services fail, be diminished, or just not be able to grow? What’s wrong with maintaining the status quo? And what new benefits are gained by having a state-of-the-art library?
The decision to even put the issue before voters is a couple of years away, which is good news for the library board as they will need a Hurcelean effort to educate enough residents to the needs of the facility — which is indeed shoddy in places — and to explain why such a significant investment is more than just a nice thing to do for our kids.
Orwell residents are in a battle against the state’s changing demographics. The undeniable fact of the past several decades is that Vermont’s student population is shrinking. That has placed a growing number of schools in a tough spot: trying to retain local control of schools that often see their annual budgets diminish as student population dwindles. At issue is Act 46’s requirement that school governance consolidate into a district board with board representation from each town. Across the state, many towns have made the transition, including all of the towns in Addison County, except Orwell.
What’s different about Orwell is that it has a viable school population of about 140, K-8, with just under 100 K-5 students. Like many schools and towns of Orwell’s size (poulation about 1,250), it has a grand tradition, dating back to 1782.
We won’t argue that Orwell should not keep its school intact. We believe it should. But there is an argument to be made that the best way for that to happen is for Orwell to be part of a larger system that brings those greater resources to its aid.
The questions Orwell residents might consider spring from what there is to gain from the unified governance, rather than what is there to lose: What programs can be strengthened? Will students be better aligned for high school programs under unified governance? Are there programs in the district that are missing at Orwell, and how could those be provided?
Alternatively, if Orwell insists on going it alone, the town and school board should make the case to the Secretary of Education that it can meet the state’s academic requirements, and should look for ways to mitigate the loss of state aid they might otherwise receive if part of a consolidated district.
What residents should avoid is allowing the fear of change to overshadow the conversation before these and other questions can be fully explored.
Angelo S. Lynn

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