Between the Lines: Schools, Climate Change & Town Meeting

School budgets and climate change will be among questions before Addison County voters next week.
In Cornwall, Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton and 32 other towns, voters will be asked to approve a resolution calling for an end to new fossil fuel infrastructure throughout Vermont.
It’s an issue that’s highly relevant to Bristol, where the selectboard is moving closer to signing a license agreement with Vermont Gas Systems to bring a new gas pipeline to town. The Public Utility Commission is considering a proposal for a gate station and distribution pipelines in Monkton.
Cornwall, too, is no stranger to the dirty tentacles of fracked gas. Not all that long ago, Vermont Gas was proposing to ram a dangerous gas pipeline through the town, tunnel under Lake Champlain, and deliver climate-polluting gas to the Ticonderoga paper plant.
New Haven is still dealing with the existing gas pipeline, which appears to have been improperly buried in parts of town. In the Vermont House, Bill H.746 seeks to halt new fossil fuel infrastructure throughout Vermont.
The Town Meeting resolutions call on the state to “firmly commit to developing renewable energy for all people in Vermont” and to “ensure that the transition to renewable energy is fair and equitable for all residents, with no harm to the lowest income people” or rural areas.
“No new fossil fuel infrastructure.” That may sound like a radical idea to some. But this is an advisory, “sense of the people” measure.
Moreover, if Vermont is to meet its goal of 90 percent renewable energy sources by 2050, gas pipelines and other dirty forms of energy will have to give way to clean energy. Indeed, a widespread transition is imperative if we’re going to slow the kind of climate change that threatens food sources and political stability around the globe.
As the resolution notes, Vermonters pay dearly for fossil-fuel energy produced out of state and imported here. By contrast, wind and solar energy create jobs and produce energy locally.
There’s also plenty of precedent for this sort of vote. During the Iraq War, for example, many Vermont towns passed resolutions of opposition.
Several years ago in Cornwall itself, voters joined many towns throughout New England in approving a resolution against new oil pipelines that would snake through New England and ship dirty tar sands oil overseas. The Cornwall resolution passed by unanimous voice vote.
Let’s turn now to school budgets.
A couple of year ago, the legislature and Gov. Peter Shumlin got the bright idea to financially incentivize the state’s tiny school districts to unify with their neighbors. The reasoning was that this approach would provide some measure of local control while trimming administrative duplication. Perhaps, its proponents felt, it might one day cut taxes.
Addison County voters enthusiastically embraced unified districts. We’re finally seeing the results.
In sharp contrast to past years, voters will be asked to approve school budgets that call for substantial cuts in staff and some teaching positions.
Bristol-area voters, for example, will give thumbs up or down to a spending plan that cuts the equivalent of about 16 full-time positions. The newly created district covers Mt. Abe middle and high schools plus elementary schools in Bristol, New Haven, Starksboro, Monkton and Lincoln.
 Budget trimming for its counterpart — the new Addison Central School District — will cut more than 20 positions and slightly decrease spending. ACSD encompasses Middlebury Union middle and high schools plus elementary schools in Cornwall, Middlebury, Bridport, Salisbury, Ripton, Shoreham and Weybridge.
The massive cuts in staff — but not in taxes — would reverse a trend that has brought annually growing budgets. Those burgeoning budgets have also been accompanied by a steady creep in additional staffing and taxes.
Adding to 2018 budget pressures is a decline in fiscal support from Montpelier and Washington. There’s also talk of shifting school funding to the income tax rather than local property taxes. Alternative education programs are on the chopping block, and legislators are wisely looking to more efficient ways to fund education of students with special needs.
While taxes aren’t yet heading downward, staffing growth looks like a thing of the past.
Voters have been poised to say that enough is enough, especially as student numbers continue to decline. (The ACSD student population is set to drop by more than 50 pupils.)
Our new school boards have read the tea leaves and come to this realization: Unless we move to flat or declining budgets and smaller staffs, the school funding situation has become both financially and politically unsustainable. Perhaps even tax cuts will follow.
So far, the county’s newly constituted school boards haven’t been afraid to say that it’s time to realign and reduce staffing levels, to better match the reduced student population.
The old days of local control over our tiny local elementary schools are coming to an end. That now appears to be the inevitable consequence of declining student numbers.
(A sad coda about what’s happening in our schools on a separate issue: The Cornwall school recently sent an email to parents saying that due to concerns about gun violence, the school is telling students not to open the school door for anyone — even their parents.)
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @GreenGregDennis.

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