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In education, what does ‘local control’ mean?

WILLIAM MATHIS

Community schools are what give towns and civilizations democracy. To dismiss the socialization effects of our schools would be to dismiss the importance of education, period.
— Bill Mathis

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series about the growing pains of Addison County schools in 1965-66 and the Vermont Commissioner of Education’s ambitious plan to address them. Read the entire series here.

ADDISON COUNTY — Upon completion of a recent series about the challenges faced by county schools in the mid-1960s, the Independent reached out to a number of local and state educators and education experts to get their take on what lessons, if any, might be learned by looking at previous upheavals in education history.

The conversations were lively and illuminating and touched on many topics in great depth. But one theme, “local control,” proved to be a hot topic.

What does the “local” in “local control” mean? How has it changed? Does it need more refining or expanding still?

These difficult questions prompted a number of thoughtful responses, as readers will see below.

WILLIAM MATHIS

William Mathis is a senior policy advisor to the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, a former superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union and a former member of the Vermont State Board of Education. He lives in Goshen.

Mathis also knew Vermont’s Education Commissioner from 1965 to 1967, Richard A. Gibboney.

“Dick (was) a delightful gentleman,” Mathis said. “I think he was very much a progressive and ahead of his time, at least by the standards of the day.”

Mathis has written extensively about the history of school consolidation in Vermont (see tinyurl.com/VtSchoolHistory).

“It’s like an accordion,” he said. “It gets a lot of momentum, and then a huge amount of violent backlash, and then it sort of simmers down until the next cycle. My favorite of these is the ‘Vicious Act’ of 1892.”

There were 2,500 school boards in Vermont before the “Vicious Act” was passed, which mandated that multiple school districts within one town must be consolidated into a single town district.

Mathis explained there are 19th-century maps called the Beers Atlases that provide a visual representation of those 2,500 school boards.

“If you look at places like Goshen, which doesn’t even have an elementary school kid right now, it would have five different school buildings,” he said. “Sudbury had something like five different school buildings. They wouldn’t even go for town-level consolidation and each school had to have its own board. That was eliminated in 1892.”

Further pushes for consolidation came, most notably, in the early 20th century and in the early 1960s, with the creation of union schools.

“It’s a cycle,” he said.

Mathis laughed when asked about how the definition of local control has changed over the past 55 years.

“That’s pretty complex,” he said. “Act 46 was going to get rid of that and consolidate school boards, and you’ve seen what a wonderful success it’s been in Addison County. Frankly, if you’d left the local boards with all these volunteers and all the kinds of work they did on building projects and so on and so forth… that would be a wonderful thing. And it would keep the people involved. But if you dis-involve the people then they’re not going to support you. I worry about that.”

Surveying the current educational landscape in Addison County, Mathis disagrees with the common assertion that small-town campaigns to withdraw from school districts to avoid closing their schools are being waged by adults who all too often fail to center students in the public conversation.

“You can’t make that argument in a Ripton or a Lincoln,” he said. “You’ll never convince them and that’s because they’re right and you’re wrong. We need to learn that there is such a thing as a public ethos, a town green, if you will, a place of ideas… There’s a reality to that sense of community. That’s what makes things strong.”

Community schools are among the few socialization institutions we’ve got left, along with families and churches, Mathis said.

“They are what give towns and civilizations democracy. To dismiss the socialization effects of our schools would be to dismiss the importance of education, period.”

REBECCA HOLCOMBE

Rebecca Holcombe served as the Vermont Secretary of Education from 2014 to 2018. Before that she worked as a teacher, principal and school district leader in the Upper Valley, and directed the Dartmouth Teacher Education Program.

The Norwich resident, too, recalled the Beers Atlases of more than a century ago.

“It’s actually fascinating,” she said. “My own town used to have 18 separate school districts and each of them had their own schoolhouse. I can’t remember when the last one closed, it may even have been the early ’70s, but what happened is several things: We got school buses, we got paved roads and we got snow plows, and all of a sudden everybody wanted to be in the big consolidated school district downtown. So what ‘local’ came to mean changed pretty significantly.”

These days, however, the “local” in “local control” is often based on the dwindling number of things school communities can actually control, Holcombe said.

“Right now the number of students in your building affects the cost of educating them,” she explained. “That does put pressure on very very small schools. You can’t control health care. Every time the Legislature passes another mandate, that’s another thing you can’t change. So the amount of money that you have discretion over gets smaller and smaller, and the only option is to raise your tax rate again. What is ‘local control’ if ‘local control’ in some communities is just cutting your budget every year?

“Part of making a healthy system is a function of strong local engagement and a belief in community institutions, but it’s also a function of the decisions we make at the state level, and there are some state-level decisions that at this point I think really challenge the ability of local boards to do the right thing for their communities,” Holcombe continued. “You can’t expect a school in a high-poverty district to be able to take care of and provide the support kids need — especially if they’re competing with more affluent private schools that can pick and choose who they serve — and still meet any definition of equity. These are big issues about democracy, about equity, about who we are as Vermonters, about what we think our children need. They can be debated at the local level, but ultimately they also need attention from the state level as well, or it’s going to be difficult to address.”

Like Richard Gibboney, Holcombe pointed to Addison County as being representative of Vermont as a whole.

“(What we’re seeing in Addison County) really is about what will public education look like in Vermont in the future,” she said. “I actually think there are few places as good to have this conversation, because you’ve taken out some of the traditional equity issues that I think obscure some of the other debates, but you really are a pretty good cross section of what we’re seeing statewide.”

PETER CONLON

Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, was elected to the Vermont House in 2017 and currently sits on the House Education Committee and the Pupil Weighting Task Force. He also serves on the Addison Central School District board. In the past, among other things, Conlon was a reporter and news editor for the Independent.

“To date, Vermont has been a pretty strong local-control state when it comes to education,” Conlon said. “That’s why we’ve seen the pitched battles over Act 46 and school district unification that we’ve seen across the state. That’s a mindset that is hard to break. People still adhere to their town borders as a strong descriptor of who they are — and those borders were drawn in the 1700s.”

Determining what the state’s role in all of this is a hard question to answer because of Vermont’s tradition of local control and independence, he said.

“At the same time, I think that in order to have major change, the state probably needs to play a stronger role, and I think Vermonters have to ask themselves, ‘How much is too much to spend on education versus all of the other priorities Vermonters have?’”

Conlon, too, recalled the “bruising transformations” of consolidating one-room schoolhouses in 1892 and of the mid-20th-century union school movement.

“Schools are clearly important to a community’s identity,” he said. “But the definition of community needs to be looked at from time to time and reassessed.”

It’s hard to speculate on whether Education Commissioner Gibboney’s proposal to build a single high school for all Addison County high school students was a missed opportunity, or how it would have affected today’s education landscape, Conlon said.

“After the decisions were made in the ’60s, all of the (Addison County) school districts saw significant growth in their populations that really probably justified having three separate high schools,” he pointed out.

According to the Independent’s best estimate, the 17 communities that make up the Bristol-, Middlebury- and Vergennes-area school districts added nearly 1,500 students — possibly more — between 1966 and peak enrollment in 2002.

School enrollment in those communities was 3,958 in 1966 — just shy of what it is today. But in 2004, which is the earliest year the Agency of Education keeps school-by-school and grade-by-grade records, enrollment was 5,332.

Even if Gibboney’s single-county high school idea — which has been echoed in a Mount Abraham Unified School District proposal written by Lincoln residents Coco Moseley and Brian Bates — could help solve declining enrollment and rising costs in local schools, such a project would face too many hurdles, Conlon said.

“In a perfect world, one high school could probably accommodate all students at the secondary level very well, and you could have a much more integrated career center for all students. It’s a great thing to think about, but then you have to ask yourself, ‘What does a new high school cost?’ ‘Where would you put it?’ And it often comes down to two things when it comes to development in Addison County, and that is viable septic and transportation.”

And governance, if not town alignment, has changed significantly since 1966.

“We are three separate school districts with three separate high schools. So just from a logistical point of view, to start talking about some sort of unified high school would require a pretty big change in governance to make that happen.”

DAVID SHARPE

Former State Rep. David Sharpe, a Bristol Democrat, served in the Vermont House from 2002 to 2018, and chaired the House Committee on Education from 2015 until his retirement. A former auto-tech teacher and coach, he is currently a Bristol representative to the Mount Abraham Unified School District Board.

Sharpe agreed that one of the benefits of a single county high school would be an integrated tech center.

“One of the really difficult hurdles for kids over the years, in schools that don’t have a tech center attached to their facility like Middlebury (does), is that in order to access any tech center programs — and this is true of many high schools in the state — they have to take a bus down to the tech center and sort of commit themselves to a more or less full-time program, or at least a half-time program, instead of it being one of their courses during the day,” Sharpe said.

“One high school for Addison County that had a comprehensive tech center down the hall, that kids could access, both in terms of a trial run, like one period a day of woodshop, or as a career starter in the auto shop or construction trades, would be a real asset for kids. And in the academic portion of your countywide high school, you (would have enough students to) offer advanced programs.”

On the other hand, larger high schools present their own challenges, Sharpe said.

“Schools are doing their best to adapt themselves to change, to become social service agencies in addition to being schools, but it can be more difficult in larger schools to deal with social-emotional problems kids are having. And then you get this centralization of power, which even in Act 46, I think, has been a problem in the three school districts in our county. When you vest more and more power in a central office, that has its own problems. So I think there are some reasonable concerns about having a large, countywide high school.”

Like Holcombe, Sharpe expressed concerns about what the logical conclusion of “local control” might be.

“What we are seeing that is very distressful for me is that relatively wealthy communities that have placed a high value on education are opting out,” he said. “Ripton and Lincoln in our county, Weybridge came very close, Westminster, Marlborough. This is exacerbating the equity issues in the state.”

Sharpe worries such campaigns are moving toward privatizing education, especially in cases where elementary schools are maintained but middle and high school students are given the option, paid for through the state education fund, to attend whatever school they choose, public or private.

“Private schools have more freedom to deliver education to their children, and that can be more appealing than the public school route, particularly for people with means,” he said. “Because if I can afford to transport my child, to pick the school, to determine what’s best for my child, why wouldn’t I choose to do that if I could afford to? No one can be upset with parents and grandparents doing what they think is best for their children. But we’re siphoning kids off the public school system, leaving the public school system with a growing percentage of children who are more costly to educate. And then you add on top of that the demographic challenge of a state that is aging and doesn’t have as many kids around as it did last year or the year before or 20 years ago. It’s no surprise that it’s in crisis.”

We need to have an honest discussion about this, Sharpe said: “Do we still believe in public education? I think that’s an open question.”

RUTH HARDY

Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Middlebury, served on the Mary Hogan, Middlebury Union High School, Addison Central Supervisory Union and Addison Central School District boards before her 2018 election to the Vermont Senate, where she sat for a term on the Committee on Education. She is currently co-chair of the Pupil Weighting Task Force.

In each of those roles, Hardy has gained a broader perspective on education, she said.

“I try to take that into consideration while also remembering how it felt to be the chair of a board that was really just thinking about its own elementary school … and my kids were there … and how precious that job was.”

The tension between the very local perspective and the statewide perspective is ever-present, she said.

“We are one of the few states in the country that has an education clause in our state constitution, so it is the state, really, that is responsible,” Hardy explained. “But it’s not just about solving policy problems. It’s also about managing and respecting and navigating people’s really strong emotional attachment to their schools and their towns and most especially to their kids. So I can solve a policy problem — it’s like solving a crossword puzzle in a lot of ways — but in the end if my policy solution doesn’t fit within people’s emotional attachments to their schools and their towns and their kids, it’s not really going to be effective.”

In addition to being representative of Vermont, Addison County is also one of the most well-functioning counties in the state, Hardy pointed out.

“My colleague Sen. (Christopher) Bray (D-Bristol) and I joke that we are kind of the ‘good county,’ that people forget about us because things run pretty smoothly here,” she said. “We do things really well and we do things on a very collaborative level. One of the reasons Addison County has done so well during the pandemic is we have this infrastructure of people who work well together, who know each other, who are all trying to serve the same broad community in a way that is highly effective and equitable compared to even other counties in Vermont — and Vermont does better than most other places in the country at this kind of thing.”

So Addison County has in its very being the collaborative spirit necessary to solve its education challenges, Hardy said.

“We just have to keep reminding people (of that). It’s sort of this ongoing conversation, and I think some people are really willing to embrace that, and then others are worried about what they might lose if they embrace it, and I understand that. Losing your school is really hard. But there are success stories of a school closing and a town thriving, despite the school closing.”

Hardy cited the school in East Middlebury, which closed just before the time period covered in the Independent’s recent historical series.

“That school became a preschool in the late 1960s, and it’s still the Middlebury Cooperative Preschool. It’s a lovely little school, my kids all went to preschool there. And our town is thriving. East Middlebury’s thriving. We are farther away from Middlebury than Cornwall and Weybridge, by distance, so people think East Middlebury, oh it’s part of Middlebury, but it’s really distinctly geographically separate, so there are instances where towns continue to thrive without their school. And the school becomes something else — a preschool, a senior center or a community center.”

Ultimately, Hardy said, providing the education our children deserve will be more challenging if communities are divided from one another.

“I am a firm believer and an ardent defender of public education,” Hardy said. “It is such an American ideal and an American creation that we provide a public education to all of our kids — and that we do so equitably and, especially in Vermont, joyously. We have to preserve that. Sticking together preserves the opportunity for us to ensure that all of our kids have an excellent education. And I really invite everybody to think about that, and think about how can we take the best of our public education and not separate it, but expand it.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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