As there seems to be considerable uncertainty surrounding the issues being put to a vote in the North Bennington school district on January 3, I took to the streets over the past few days to see if, by speaking with people I thought knowledgeable and concerned, I could ascertain for myself the basic questions and assertions brought up by each side.
Although the district has voted twice for an independent school, opponents to the proposed change raise questions such as these:
* Not enough information has been provided to make an informed decision.
* The decision to form an independent school would be unduly significant and irreversible.
* The new school's board would lie outside taxpayer oversight and representation.
* A small independent school would be less likely to be able to afford some of the programs required by law, and its finances in general be less secure.
* A school and community's overall goals are better served by being part of a larger system.
* In addition, it is often added that the group encouraging independence has been unduly zealous in its efforts.
As for the latter, the same seems to be true for both sides. But what do proponents of the independent school have to say?
* With enrollment dropping and costs rising, a small school needs a wider array of options and tools to survive.
* Small schools provide the sort of individualized education in which the community believes.
* Local control of the community school is the best insurance of quality and responsibility.
* The push for consolidation in Vermont and elsewhere is likely to work against small community schools.
* The value of flexibility in an independent school outweighs whatever advantages lie in a larger system.
* The community's past record in supporting the school is a good indicator for its future success.
Both of these sets of views, of course, have their strengths and weaknesses. What, then, is at stake?
From the point of view of opponents, leaving the security of the established system invites risk and launches the school and those who pay for it on an uncertain path. For proponents, the equation at work is the quality of a small community-oriented school versus the cost-saving outlook of the movement toward consolidation.
Proponents note that the decision for independence is not irreversible and that the community retains control: all matters concerning a new independent school would be overseen by the same elected board existing today. They add that, as the community's designated educational center, the new school would have the same financial and legal obligations as the one it replaced. The point they make is that to stay the same - a small, spirited enterprise with a culture reflecting its community - some things will, ironically, have to change. Without change, they say, the school is likely to go the way of some of the other endangered elements of our society - the arts, quality in our daily life, the social safety net.
Proponents accept the risk involved in the changes they propose, but they have confidence in the community and those interested in the education of its children to come to terms with them as they have in the past. The question they ask of opponents is: what do they value in the education of our children? Are they willing to accept the likely reduction in quality that comes with resources spread more thinly?
These are questions voters will have to sort out for themselves. To my mind, independence, initiative, and community support sound an awful lot like the Vermont I know. Freedom is an expensive proposition, but I think we can all agree, well worth it.
Tom Fels lives in North Bennington.