Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Please pause school closings

These last few months of responding to the coronavirus have shown how resilient Vermonters are and how able to react quickly in an emergency. We have come together across parties and sectors to take care of one another. We have assured that people have food and places they can turn to for help. We have responded well to a crisis and continue to work on supporting those who are living on the margins. Our awareness of terrible inequities has grown and our ability to think of new solutions to old problems is growing stronger.
We are learning to listen to one another across cultural and institutional divides, to experience tension without panicking, and to use the creative energy of diverse perspectives. It may be one reason we have such a basically civil society. In the past we have been leaders in creating new solutions to seemingly insoluble problems. For example, the Vermont Housing Conservation Board effectively brought together three sectors that no one thought could co-exist: affordable housing, productive agriculture, and environmental protection. Now, when much of the country has forgotten how to take care of one another or what democracy looks like — we can keep the flame alive for a new generation. 
I think we will be called upon to exercise even more expansive thinking in the next few months as our three major school districts deliberate on how to solve significant financial problems. A major option being presented in each district is to close some of the smaller rural schools, which have experienced declining enrollment. If we can take the time to learn from one another, we might create a better alternative: transforming these valuable town buildings into expansive community care and learning resources, instead of closing them. The current fiscal problems have been a long time growing and even though we have shown the ability to react quickly, this is not the time to do so. We should hit pause for a year, and focus on making sure everyone can thrive, not just survive. School boards and selectboards can plan together, instead of being separate worlds. Many families have come to Vermont recently as refugees from COVID-19, climate change, and an oppressive national culture. Vibrant town centers, good local care and learning options, and a collegial sense of civic engagement may encourage them to stay here. Closing a school shuts the door on better opportunities. Taking a few deep breaths and exploring more creative options could be far more productive.
We can think responsibly about solving the looming penalties for high spending: We could create a shared service arrangement among the three districts that would reduce administrative costs. With legislative help we could assure health care for all so that health insurance is no longer an employer burden. We could create a public/private facility management company to remove the cost of buildings from school budgets while still assuring the facilities are maintained for public uses. We have brilliant, creative and dedicated teachers, staff and administrators throughout our county. People could be redeployed to implement much-needed programs such as internships with local businesses or individualized instruction for all children. If we can slow down enough to think expansively, we may well transform this challenging problem into an even more vibrant community solution. 
Cheryl Mitchell is president of Treleven, a retreat and learning program located on her family’s sheep farm in Addison County. She does freelance consulting on issues related to children, families, social policy and farm to community work. She can be reached at [email protected].

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