Education Op/Ed

Editorial: Act 46: Process should respect the voices of each community

ANGELO LYNN

In a letter to the editor two weeks ago (Sept. 30), Cornwall resident Peter Conlon exercised his right to respond to this editorial writer’s support of Ripton, Lincoln, Starksboro and other smaller towns that want to keep their smaller schools open.

Unfortunately, in his criticism he took a page from ex-president Donald Trump to try to discredit the writer, rather than defend his preference to close small schools. That’s too bad as it came across as mean-spirited, which we’ll chalk up to the very real frustrations facing school board members (just look at today’s front page stories concerning school issues) and let it be.

Rather, I’ll address his criticisms point by point so he can understand where the substance of my arguments lie, and where his argument falls short.

First, he calls my editorials on this topic anti-Act 46. They are not. I supported Act 46 throughout its process because its primary purpose was to consolidate school district governance, not close schools. That was important because previously each school had its own board and made its own decisions. That required the district administration at ACSU, for example, to keep track of seven elementary school boards, a high school board, and the district board. It was unwieldy. Act 46 provided the governance tool to make K-12 more academically cohesive and easier to manage. As incentive for towns to sacrifice their local school boards for a diminished voice on a larger district board, towns were awarded property tax reductions for up to five years, and the sooner they joined a district the more they saved. It worked.

While Conlon is correct in saying that towns had closed small schools in years prior to Act 46 (no one said they didn’t), he is dishonest to suggest that Act 46 hasn’t been a catalyst to that discussion and to school closings. It has, as a deliberate intent of the legislation, facilitated that discussion by laying out a process for school closures to be further defined by each district charter, and by providing districts with the voting power to force closure on member schools.

And that’s OK. Those discussions needed to happen.

The law was poorly crafted, however, because it did not define a rational process to follow when a town, like Ripton, voted to pull out of the district to keep its school open, then managed to scale the tall hurdle of getting district towns to also agree to let it pull out, then get the state board of education to agree in concept, only to send it back through the system to get the financial deals worked out and approved. Ripton did everything the district charter and the legislation asked of it — and yet it remains in limbo because, at the end of the day, the state board of education sent the town back to the beginning to work things out with the school district. The law, in short, created a path to nowhere, which, in my book, is poorly crafted.

As a state legislator on the education committee, Rep. Conlon would serve the state well if he were working hard to correct that shortcoming.

When I noted that Act 46 is working well in some instances, that is not a “backhanded compliment.” In the case of Weybridge, for example, the community conducted a spirited debate about staying within the district or pulling out, and a majority of residents chose to close their school. The same is true of Addison. The same was true of Leicester (where I live), Whiting and Sudbury. After a couple years of discussion, prior to Act 46, those three schools (two of which had very small student populations) decided to form a unified school — a decision made with majority town support.

The problem is when a community goes to extreme lengths to demonstrate its desire to keep its community school open, and yet has no way to do so. That’s where we are with Ripton, and perhaps Lincoln and Starksboro — and for those three towns, and others around the state, there needs to be a feasible way forward.

Conlon is wrong, again, when he says my perspective has been “to advocate for all schools to stay open at all costs.” I never have. I supported Leicester, Whiting and Sudbury’s decision to consolidate. I did not advocate for Addison to stay open because it did not appear to have the community support to do so; nor did I advocate for Weybridge to remain open. What’s true is that I have advocated for small schools to stay open when they have strong community support to do so.

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The argument in favor of consolidation rests on two dubious rails: cost savings and better academic outcomes.

Conlon, as do many school board members, focus on cost savings. His ending tirade against me was that I should embrace hiking property taxes to the moon if I am to keep supporting schools like Ripton, Lincoln and Starksboro — and, I would add, also schools in Salisbury, Shoreham and Cornwall if the district decides one day that those schools are too small to remain open.

Conlon’s argument is this: consolidation is more cost-efficient, our taxes are too high, so we must consolidate to cut costs. Mathematically, that case can be made. Just as Wal-Mart and Amazon can cut prices lower than mom-and-pop stores serving a local market, consolidating into ever-bigger centralized government can produce savings. Not that it does, but theoretically it can.

The logical end to that argument, however, is to consolidate all district schools into one, big centralized facility. Is that where we’re headed; does that serve students best?

The other argument is that consolidated districts can provide better academic outcomes. That could be true. But for every study that suggests as much, there is another that hails the advantages of small schools. One determining factor is community support of a school. If parents are involved, students have personal pride in their environment and the larger community is supportive, those are strong indicators that student performance will excel, just as a larger school without such support is likely to falter.

Neither argument, in short, is a slam-dunk. Nor should school boards take the stance that it knows what’s best for each community. There is a democratic process in place for that, which boards should respect.

The challenge is to provide a way for consolidation to happen where it makes sense, and for school independence to flourish in towns that demonstrate strong support for it. Surely we can endeavor to make that possible.

Angelo Lynn

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