As a local school board member, I have watched the twists and turns of Act 46 closely, and the process has run its course. Delaying implementation of the forced mergers by another year would be harmful to our students and our communities.
I was on the original study committee that recommended to the supervisory union that we explore merging. Over the course of that summer my position changed from being upset at being told what to do, to believing that a merged district would actually benefit our students, teachers and schools. What changed? Here are a few of the benefits that I found:
Educational opportunity: Equity is the hallmark of Act 46. It’s clear that there are different levels of opportunity in the five elementary schools. I’m not implying that one school is “better” than another; rather that each school has their individual strengths and weaknesses. We can’t easily move students to a school that’s a better fit; under a unified district they could be moved to the school that suits them best. This in particular could benefit small schools with declining population as a means to both serve students better and stabilize student population numbers across the district. This addresses the second largest fear around Act 46 — that it will be used to close schools.
Staffing: Teachers are hired and let go on a “last in, first out” basis. Each district has a “last in” position. Our supervisory union has six districts (five elementary schools and U-32). Imagine being a school that has declining student population, and trying to hire a teacher. That new teacher will be last in, and if the student population doesn’t rebound the likelihood of them being let go in a year or two is high. Would you apply for that job?
Budgeting: One district doesn’t mean that schools don’t account for and build individual budgets, it just means that the supervisory union district budget is voted on as a single budget. We get feedback each year about the fact that we don’t get to vote on the supervisory union budget because it’s effectively billed to the individual districts. That would no longer be the case.
Debt: There has been much hand wringing and histrionics about the debt issue. To summarize, some towns, most significantly East Montpelier, have significant levels of debt, while other towns do not. Some argue that equalizing the debt is unfair, but that’s shortsighted and incorrect: At some point, every school in our five towns will need significant investment, and no town in the district has anywhere near enough cash on hand to do it without incurring debt. East Montpelier, Berlin and Middlesex were just first, and if the debt is spread across the district then when it’s Calais and Worcester’s turn, that new debt will also be spread across the district. It’s not realistic to expect that the Unified district will only take on new debt, while leaving the old debt with the individual towns. Contrary to some of the public discourse, this is not remotely about East Montpelier trying to foist our debt off on the surrounding towns. Rather it’s about fair, long-term fiscal management of the unified district.
Where are we now? As the State Board of Education and Department of Education signaled from the outset when we inquired about pursuing an “Alternative Governance” model for our district, it would have an extremely low chance of being approved. Our Act 46 committee chose that path anyway. And while the proposal we sent (and agreed to unanimously as the ‘best we can do at this time’) was thorough and well done, it was predictably denied by the state board.
In conclusion, the towns of Washington Central Supervisory Union have spent the last three years arguing endlessly about the myriad ways that the new Unified District model simply can’t work for us, despite the fact that we manage to run U-32 with that exact same model. We have to stop thinking of schools as town assets and think instead of our five towns as an educational community. That shift in mindset translates to shared responsibility for all the students in all of the five towns, along with the management, operation and upkeep of the schools. The time and manpower that has gone into the Act 46 process in our district is mind boggling. These thousands upon thousands of hours of volunteer effort would have been far better spent on examining new and novel ways to best serve our students.
We’ve already had three years to go over all of this ad nauseum, as Act 46 has been the absolute, all-consuming centerpiece of the work done by the seven boards responsible for governing our schools. We need to complete the consolidation and get back to the work of running our schools, rather than continuing to argue about all the ways it will never work.
Extending the timeline for implementation will just prolong the agony.
Rubin Bennett is a member of the East Montpelier School Board.