Editorial: We agree: Fix Act 46
Two weeks ago, we wrote in this space that the State Board of Education was off target with its effort to make it ever more difficult for Ripton, and other towns seeking to save the independence of their schools, to successfully withdraw from a school district whose intent is to shut it down. Ripton had followed the Act 46 process to withdraw, but after successfully surmounting those hurdles ran into a flaw in the system that renders its withdrawal difficult if not untenable.
In a commentary last week that rebutted our editorial, State Board of Education Chair Oliver Olsen took us to task for suggesting the SBE had more leeway to rule on Ripton’s behalf and he denied the SBE was “targeting small schools for consolidation.” Rather, he said, in Ripton’s case, the board only had “bad options to choose from.”
We agree that the SBE had few good options, if by that Mr. Olsen meant choosing from neighboring districts that didn’t want to accept Ripton into their fold. Olsen also defended the board’s actions by suggesting the board’s role was narrowly defined and he couldn’t work outside the law.
We counter this on two fronts: First, this is politics and the SBE is a political board; second, if something isn’t working, the job is to help fix it, not duck, bob and weave. In short, the SBE could use its political influence to lobby for changes in the law that would strengthen the outcomes of schools in communities like Ripton, including Lincoln and Starksboro, but also towns as large as Stowe.
We remain concerned this will not happen. In comments about communities withdrawing from host districts, Olsen has said repeatedly, “We don’t want another Ripton,” and has argued for “structural guardrails to make sure that people are going through this (withdrawal process) in a really thoughtful manner,” cautioning in a recent statewide story that “things can go off the rails pretty quickly.”
Ripton, of course, didn’t careen off course in a moment of utopic frenzy. Quite the contrary. Residents spent the better part of two years agonizing over the potential closure of their school and debating the pros and cons of keeping it open. Thousands of volunteer hours were poured into the effort with Ripton residents well aware of potential risks and rewards. Folks in Lincoln and Starksboro are doing the same.
What Ripton and others didn’t count on was a system that lacked clarity and no viable way forward, but that is no fault of their own. Citizens should expect laws are written with forethought and insight.
We were encouraged by Mr. Olsen’s comments, nonetheless, that he and the SBE are also “frustrated with the process” and acknowledge that state statutes “do not contemplate most of the thorny issues we have been dealing with” since the passage of Act 46. As Mr. Olsen wrote: Until such time as the Legislature can “fix the law… Voters need to understand the current statutory framework governing withdrawals lacks clarity, has a number of problems, leaves kids and taxpayers vulnerable, and has no safeguards to ensure a good outcome.”
The Legislature should have considered those statutes when writing the legislation, but did not. To that end, the House is currently considering more than 100 pages of amendments related to “cleaning up” Act 46. No doubt these are developments needed to create a more viable system, but ones that should be carefully monitored so that communities that treasure their local schools have a viable way to maintain and support them.
In the meantime, schools caught in the middle — like Ripton, Lincoln, Starksboro, Stowe and others — should be granted additional time before districts can force closure or schools have to choose to withdraw. It’s simply not tenable to force either party to make those decisions when current rules are inadequate and are being rewritten.
(Editor’s note: We did not respond to Mr. Olsen in last week’s issue as readers have rightly argued we should not immediately rebut as it negates that argument without giving it time and space to percolate.)
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