Editorial: Small towns vs. state board: Only one’s on target
Ripton’s Molly Witters is right on target; State Board of Education Chair Oliver Olsen is not.
The target Witters is aiming for is to create a viable school district for one or more small schools, and perhaps a bevy of them — all dissatisfied with consolidation decisions that would close their schools.
Olsen, on the other hand, maintains that while Act 46 states towns have the right to withdraw from their districts to keep their schools open — even if that meant clearing high obstacles — there is no viable way to do so. Moreover, rather than try to make a system work for all of the state’s schools, he, as state school board chair, has maintained that the state’s target is to force consolidation whether smaller schools like it or not.
This reality came to a point last week when the state board of education told Ripton that it could exist as its own K-12 supervisory district, but it would be without the assistance of any other supervisory district’s network. (See story on Page 1A.) The state board had the option of pairing Ripton with a neighboring or fitting supervisory union, but chose not to. Why? It appears that decision was because Olsen wanted to warn other towns to avoid the path Ripton has chosen.
“It would be extremely unwise for anyone to proceed further until the Legislature has had a chance to resolve these statutes. When there’s a lack of clarity in the process, that’s where communities can get into trouble pretty quickly… I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Ripton is a cautionary tale.”
It didn’t have to be so.
The state board of education could have reviewed Act 46, understood that Ripton’s withdrawal followed the letter of the law, and seeing that the law didn’t provide for a viable process forward, they could have helped craft a way for Ripton and similar towns to be successful.
Rather, the board punted the problem back to the Legislature, acknowledging the bill needs more clarity for towns like Ripton.
Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French hints that other towns would be joining Ripton’s desire to remain open and that a potential new model could be conceived.
“It seems likely that in the near future, the (state) board will want to revisit whatever choice it makes to provide for the immediate needs of the Ripton School District,” French said. “There are many schools throughout the region that are located within larger unified union school districts. Some of these unified school districts have begun to discuss the possibility of school closures and of future mergers, which has led residents in some small towns to consider withdrawal from the union school districts. It may be most prudent to designate the Ripton School District and any other withdrawing town as its own SD for at least the next few years, in case other changes in the region necessitate either the need for a new multi-district SU, or some other configuration that cannot yet be contemplated with any specificity.”
Meanwhile, Witters and other members of Ripton’s school board and school community are determined to create practical and effective solutions.
“In essence, we are contemplating that other entity right now, and we’re going to go forward with modeling it and looking at its feasibility and thinking about how it might provide services for our own community, our neighboring communities and communities down the line in the state,” Witters said.
It’s a tall task for a small town. They are modeling a state solution, something one might think the state board of education should do. But no matter, Ripton’s board and Witters are looking ahead: “In my most idealistic sense of it, if we can create a model whereby small community schools can be supported in this state, then everybody wins,” she said. “Whether this is feasible or not remains to be seen.”
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