While school officials in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union debate the idea of a new Regional Education District -- with no firm decisions on the horizon -- three ballot questions on Tuesday provide some clear answers. That is, school consolidation is not high on agendas outside of Bennington, even as many smaller town residents continue to grouse about high tax bills.
In the North Bennington Graded School district, voters this week affirmed the school board's decision to seek independent status for the elementary district. The vote was 375 to 149, and pending state approvals, will move NBGS well away from the notion of consolidating districts to reduce costs and better share resources.
In fact, the spirit of independence in local education seems alive and well in many towns, despite the costs. In a question on the Mount Anthony Union ballots, Bennington voters overwhelmingly supported a nonbinding referendum on creation of a unified school district for kindergarten through 12th grade students, 1,550 to 703 votes.
However, that idea was rejected by healthy margins in North Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford. This clearly illustrated the first overwhelming fear concerning consolidation -- that the local Big Kahuna, Bennington, could dominate any such arrangement.
Voters in the four smaller towns overwhelmingly rejected another MAU ballot question, which asked if all sixth grade students should be sent to the MAU Middle School in Bennington. The building has the capacity to take students from all the towns. Bennington voters were alone in voting yes.
Perhaps a better approach, considering stiff resistance to any loss of "local control" over education, would be one that aims for better coordination and sharing of services to lower costs and improve or retain the quality of education. A formal structure to increase sharing of resources with less duplication might be possible and might win approval by the various boards and by residents in all the towns involved.
We think a single regional board with weighted voting, giving the other towns voting power equal to Bennington's, would make the most sense -- along with written agreements concerning the fate of local school buildings and other sensitive subjects. But for now at least, support for that option seems a long way off.