Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Let MAUSD & ANWSD explore collaborations first

Starksboro voters recently dealt a lethal, if not fatal, blow to the aspirations of a regional merger study committee to impose a full governance merger of the Mt. Abe and Addison Northwest school districts. In a stunning vote tally of 221 to 0, Starksboro joined Lincoln and Ripton before it as yet another town wishing to leave its school district. It didn’t have to come to this.

Foregoing any meaningful community input, the Mt. Abe school board last year joined with Addison Northwest to form the merger study committee to address perceived demographic and financial challenges faced by our schools. In so doing, the boards handed over a problem-solving process under Vermont law to a body over which, ironically, neither has control. A consequence of this — the anti-democratic removal of the right of individual towns to decide the fate of their own schools — is the primary cause of the Lincoln and Starksboro votes to withdraw.

As the merger committee was being formed, the Mt. Abe board commissioned a highly regarded consultant to help seek solutions to our schools’ challenges. The recently released “Levenson Report” is undergoing community review and contains numerous useful policy and practical recommendations for moving forward. While a merger is not incompatible with the report, it also is not necessary for effecting positive change. The logical conclusion is that a full governance merger is at best premature.

Even if the merger study committee recommends a merger of the two school districts, its adoption by voters later this year is unlikely, as Lincoln and Starksboro have made abundantly clear. In difficult circumstances, individual committee members have been diligent and are to be commended for their efforts. It would be a shame for the committee’s work to come to be seen as simply as a waste of everyone’s time. So what is to be done?

Here is a six-step “recovery program” for the merger study committee to consider:

  1. The original intent of at least the Mt. Abe board was to explore further collaboration with surrounding districts, including Addison Northwest. The committee should return to its roots and focus its efforts on expanding current areas of successful collaboration between the two school districts, rather than expending so much energy, as it currently does, on creating complicated bureaucratic structures that will be expensive and time-consuming to implement.
  2. The committee and merger proponents should refrain from scaremongering and otherwise gaslighting voters with questionable doomsday demographic and financial prognoses. Legislative initiatives and migration patterns in 2022 are much different than they were just two years ago when the study committee was in formation; thinking forward should reflect this fact.
  3. The committee would be wise to recognize and support the promises that were made to voters during Act 46 school unification with respect to the right of towns to vote on closing or repurposing schools. The Mt. Abe board has taken this step; the committee should do the same.
  4. It is never too late to stimulate meaningful community input, even if it should have been done previously. Failure to approach reform from the “bottom up,” as opposed to from the “top down,” has created unfortunate and sustained divisiveness within our communities. Further, towns in the Mt. Abe district have been disproportionately vocal in committee deliberations, adding to the divisiveness. More should be done to encourage Addison Northwest participation in the process. The committee would do well to expand outreach efforts to encourage, not just tolerate, collaboration with selectboards, zoning officials, housing advocates, and regional economic development interests.
  5. The Levenson Report contains valuable information about school reform. Even though the effort was initiated by the Mt. Abe board, its recommendations undoubtedly have relevance for the Addison Northwest district. Steps should be taken to integrate the Levenson Report fully into the study committee’s agenda.
  6. The determinative nature of adopting Articles of Agreement for a merger before settling on how the two districts might collaborate is not well conceived and does not build trust in our communities. The current decision-making timetable is to accommodate state officials’ summer vacation plans in the event of a merger recommendation and to fit into this year’s town voting schedules. These artificial considerations pale in contrast to the importance of the solving the issues at hand.

Failure on the part of the study committee to modify its course of action very likely will result in a rejection of its recommendations by the voters. This might mean an opportunity missed, in the sense that inter-district collaboration, short of actual merger, could very well have significant regional benefits. The study committee would be wise to refocus its work to address the issues of the day and put off further discussion of a governance merger to a time when circumstances actually require it.

Respectfully,

Brad Johnson, Starksboro and Rob Backlund, Lincoln

Editor’s note: Messrs. Johnson and Backlund serve on the MAUSD board. Mr. Johnson also is a member of the merger study committee. The views expressed in this letter are their own.

 

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