Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Towns need a say in school closings

The process of Act 46 consolidation in the Addison Central School District has, in my view, lacked the necessary transparency and level of enfranchisement that one would expect in a democratic society.
First, the 2016 Town Meeting Day school district consolidation vote held in each of the district towns was hardly a free and fair election. The small outlying towns were informed that if they voted against consolidation, they would lose their small schools state grant and probably all state funding going forward. Whereas, if they voted for consolidation, the state money (our own tax money) would continue to flow. So, of course consolidation passed in each town. No town was willing to disadvantage their children by voting in a way that would offend the state. That election, I believe, was corrupted by deception and intimidation — and invalid as an expression of the true disposition of the people.
Then, while it was understood that the primary purpose of Act 46 was to consolidate district governance (which the ACSD Board has accomplished), the Act now is being interpreted as a mandate to close a certain number of the district’s small schools, even though it is clearly stated in Act 46 that “It is not the State’s intent to close its small schools, but rather to ensure that those schools have the opportunity to enjoy the expanded educational opportunities and economies of scale that are available to schools within larger, more flexible governance models.” (No. 46. An act relating to making amendments to education funding, education spending, and education governance. Section 1, j).
However, there is little to prevent the ACSD Board from closing our small town schools. The board intends to “consolidate” three small town schools and is now beginning a facilities study across the district to accomplish those consolidations. The charter under which the board is constituted structures the board with seven representatives for Middlebury and one representative each for the small towns in the district, for a total of 13 board members. The towns do not elect their own board members — they are elected by the voters of the entire district. By the charter’s rules, a town school can be closed with a vote of 10 of the 13 members. A town school can be closed by the board without a consenting vote from the town. (Our two neighboring school districts, ANWSD (Vergennes) and Mount Abe Unified School District (Bristol), have board charters that require a town to vote to ratify a school closing. And ironically, when the town loses its school, the taxpayers of the town will be forced to pay the costs necessary to expand and upgrade the central school to which their children will then be bused each day.
Therefore, I propose a change in the ACSD charter, as follows:
• Each of the town’s voters will elect their own representatives to the board, rather than representatives being voted in collectively by the entire district.
• A town school can be closed only with a consenting vote by the townspeople.
It would serve the people of the district best if the ACSD charter be revised no later than Town Meeting Day of 2020.
We now have a school district in which 10 members on the school board can close a town’s school without the consent of the voters in that town. When Ripton voted to secure a bond and build its school 30 years ago, we did not ask the other towns in ACSU to give permission, nor to share in the cost of our undertaking. We have maintained and improved our school since that time without expecting the other district towns to help us financially. We have what we feel is an excellent educational program for our children. Ripton has not voted down a school budget since the school was built. Now we face the possibility of having our school closed, not by our choice, but by the will of a board where we are effectively disenfranchised. The ACSD Board does not represent us; rather, it is acting as an instrument of the state government which has imposed this consolidation process on us. In a democracy we are guaranteed a voice in decisions concerning our town and our schools. With the current board charter, we are being denied that voice.
Millard Cox
Ripton

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