Education Op/Ed

Editorial: A rewrite for more consolidation

ANGELO LYNN

In the political tussle pitting small schools against districts that want to close them, a newly devised bill, H.727, intentionally works against the effort to preserve Vermont’s smaller schools — even when those communities overwhelmingly vote to support them. But the bill is not wholly misguided. 

Its intent is to assure towns considering withdrawing from their districts thoroughly understand the implications. To that end, the pertinent section of the law (Section 724) adds a more vigorous process for small towns to undertake, requiring 17 pages to outline, including 14 pages of requirements before the first step of the current withdrawal process can begin. (See story on Page 1A). It’s a process crafted in large part by the State Board of Education, which over the past year has displayed a blatant bias against withdrawal and for consolidation.

Those who have studied the bill’s new language recognize the increased hardship. 

• Herb Olson, a member of the Starksboro Save our Schools effort says it is “essentially an attempt to suppress voting without saying, “You don’t have a vote.” 

• Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, said the bill “adds barriers and increases the time necessary for a town to withdraw from a union school district, further distancing the town’s ability to engage in a true democratic process about the school they know best.” 

• Lincoln selectboard member Paul Forlenza, whose town received a carve-out in the new law and won’t be affected, said that he didn’t think Lincoln “would have gotten as far as we’ve gotten,” had the new law been in effect when Lincoln began its successful effort to withdraw.

Moreover, the bill adds a completely unnecessary requirement that small schools achieve a 60% supermajority vote to withdrawal if the SBE gives a negative review of a school’s plan to withdraw. There could be no more blatant display of bias in a bill than a requirement that asks what no other bills do. In arguing that the 60% requirement be removed, Lincoln town attorney Karen Lueders explained no similar requirement is found “anywhere else in our voting laws… If the board’s reasoning is sound, the board (SBE) should have confidence that the electorate will appreciate the reasoning and vote intelligently.”

But a reasonable assessment by the community wanting to keep its small school open is not the aim of Section 724. On the contrary, the aim of Section 724 is simply to make withdrawal more difficult and more unlikely. That’s particularly true because the mechanisms for a successful withdrawal effort are not readily at hand. 

Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, rightly suggests tough questions need to be addressed before a withdrawal effort comes to a town vote. Those questions include: how a school will bus its kids to and from school, how the school will handle back-office management or coordinate curriculum with its middle-and-high school partners, and, he says, most important of all, how the independent school will handle special education. 

Realistically, local options exist for a small school to handle transportation and the front-and-back office requirements without excessive costs. Coordinating curriculum and special education, however, require a bigger framework. That’s always been the case. The failure of Act 46 is that it neglected to outline a process for a small school to withdraw while also managing those two issues.

For instance, that law could have (perhaps should have) required that a district could not propose closing a small school (and therefore recognize cost savings) without also offering to be the active partner in the secondary grades (middle and high school) and also offer to provide special education for that school’s students if it chose to withdraw. That would have put more of the onus on the school district ahead of its decision to close a school and made that board more thoughtful in its deliberation.

Similarly, in drafting new language for H.727, that approach could have been taken by the House committee — creating a feasible path forward for schools wanting to withdraw. Why the committee chose to make it more difficult is plain: like the SBE, its bias is to promote school consolidation and to eliminate smaller schools.

That’s not new. 

For decades attempts to pass measures to do just that failed. The brilliance of Act 46 was that it approached the issue piecemeal: first, to change the unwieldy governance of supervisory unions and the multiple boards that entailed (Addison Central Supervisory Union had nine separate boards); second to provide a tax incentive over five years that encouraged merging the governance into a single board, along with a promise not to close any schools in the first years; and third to provide a process for small schools to withdraw from the district and remain open. All the bases were seemingly covered, including that important safeguard for towns to keep their schools — and their towns — vibrant.

For the legislature to renege on that construct now, however, and make withdrawal a near impossibility for small schools facing closure is not only dishonest, but unwise.

As we’ve argued before, there’s wisdom found in a town’s wholehearted effort to keep its school alive and its community thriving. To dismiss that runs counter to Vermont’s tradition of honoring each town’s uniqueness and independence, and undermines the very essence of much of the state’s rural charm. 

As this bill is debated in the Senate, we encourage a shift in the legislative bias from those who would do everything to push consolidation to those who see value in maintaining the vitality of Vermont’s small towns and those schools. 

That will require a rewrite of Section 724 that puts a more equal onus on the school district when deciding whether to close a school and what costs it will share. That’s not difficult to craft, but the House Education Committee and the SBE have chosen to look the other way. The Senate should right that wrong.

Angelo Lynn

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The Addison Independent will be closed on Monday, July 4th. The newspaper will be published on Thursday, as usual.