Editorial: Votes demonstrate the populist appeal of self-determination
From an editor’s perspective, the school board elections in Addison Central School District and the decision by the four-member towns of the Mount Abraham Unified School District to approve Lincoln’s exit from the district were the most noteworthy of this year’s Town Meeting. That’s because those votes reflect a strong current of dissatisfaction with how Act 46 and its movement toward school consolidations are limiting a town’s ability to choose — rightly or wrongly — a self-determined path.
The Lincoln vote by the four MAUSD member towns, in particular, was a pointed rejection of the State Board of Education’s year-long campaign to discourage other small schools to follow in Ripton’s footsteps. Several blue-collar gestures come to mind that reflect the sentiment those voters expressed. That’s noteworthy because it demonstrates the depth of anger and resistance to forced consolidation, even among neighboring communities that might benefit from the merger.
What it also signals, as loudly as any election can, is the need for legislative changes in the process — not that make it harder for small towns and their schools to secede (that would only make the dissatisfaction deeper), but to create viable ways to make it possible.
That’s no easy task. The state constitution requires that school education be financially equitable, and to do so the Brigham decision (based on a legal case in Whiting that became the impetus for Act 60) makes it difficult to figure out ways small schools can survive without residents of larger communities paying for those inherent cost inefficiencies. The math is plain enough: small schools, if run independently, will not be as cost effective as a larger school could be. That is economics of scale.
But saving a few dollars should not be the primary focus. That’s the rub. The focus should be academic excellence and student performance, but also encapsulate the overall wellness of Vermont communities. Board members, at the state and local levels, who maintain their only concern is student outcomes are not serving the public well. Actions have consequences and if those consequences damage as much or more than they help, it’s a negative. Much of Vermont’s character and its uniqueness is embodied by the state’s 251 towns, most of which are rural communities with small schools. Laws that undermine the very essence of that character need review and change.
This is particularly true in a digital era that separates and divides community; that isolates individuals at home and at work; that telegraphs messages of unknown origins and veracity. At a time when individuals need strong communities to bring people together to work for the common good, to discuss ideas person-to-person, to sort through ways to make communities and our children strong, informed and resilient the last thing we should be doing is undermining a town’s school. It is, for many voters, the last stand for community. Lose the school, and you lose town unity.
It’s a passion that should not be lightly dismissed.
It remains a challenge, however, to portray a model in which very small schools are economically and academically viable. The state has seen one-room schoolhouses close one-by-one throughout the past 50-75 years. What, then, is too small? Is it 35 students K-5, or 50 or 75? Or is that the wrong question?
A good argument can be made that if a community embraces its school and supplies abundant parental support and resources, student outcomes will excel. The counter argument that larger schools can offer foreign languages, art, music and other activities with greater variety is certainly valid and sets a high bar, but it doesn’t necessarily surpass the advantages of strong community support at a smaller school. It’s this latter point that some school board members have been reluctant to accept, and consequently to insist they know better and should dictate policy to small towns.
The votes in ACSD and MAUSD are hard to explain without recognizing the populist appeal of these small towns yearning to determine their own fate; and of the voters’ rejection of initiatives to prevent them. Hence, in the MAUSD, voters in the four neighboring towns approved Lincoln’s exit by an overwhelming 3-1 margin — even though it was not in their financial interest. Meanwhile, in ACSD, two challengers to positions on the school board defeated incumbents over this very issue.
Perhaps it is Vermont’s uniquely libertarian streak, akin to the state’s romantic admiration of the Green Mountain Boys, that leads towns to be so reckless. Or perhaps there is wisdom in allowing towns to determine their own way when citizens believe core community values are at risk.
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