Our View: Woodford wise to revote on Act 46

Now that Woodford has decided to reconsider its proposed Act 46 school district merger with Bennington, Shaftsbury and Pownal — a proposal its voters defeated by just two votes on Nov. 7 — we see the wisdom in revoting the question, for the good of the town, its elementary school and the proposed Mount Anthony Unified School District.

To recap, the proposed merger would create a unified school district along nearly the same lines as the Mount Anthony Union High School district, with a single district-wide board, budget and tax rate. That proposal needed to win in three of four towns to pass, and while the overall vote was 67 percent in favor of the merger, it lost by two votes in Woodford and by four in Pownal.

A revote in Woodford resulting in a yes won't bring back the tax incentives that were promised as an inducement for Vermont communities to consolidate school districts under Act 46. Those are lost and gone forever. And with $31 million already earmarked for such incentives statewide this coming year, it's unlikely the Scott administration and/or the legislature will be in a mood to reward communities that couldn't agree to a consolidation plan by the Nov. 30 deadline.

But a yes vote in Woodford could give the mountain town and its neighbors some assurances that it and the rest of the proposed district currently lack.

It would keep that school and other small schools in the proposed district open for at least five years and require two consecutive three-fourths votes of the new board to close it. Those generous requirements were included in the consolidation plan assembled by a local volunteer board.

There's no guarantee that the state would honor those closure conditions if it imposed a consolidation plan of its own — even though we believe that it should, since 67 percent of those who voted approved that plan. But given the rhetoric about saving education costs coming from Montpelier, it's easy to imagine a scenario in which small schools such as Woodford Hollow would be cited as examples of luxuries the state's taxpayers can no longer afford.

The proposed merger would give the new district a single board, a single budget and a single tax rate less prone to sudden increases in taxes, as a larger district would have more taxpayers to share the burden for unexpected capital costs or special education costs. It would have the opportunity to find cost savings, standardize curriculum and policies, and innovate across the district.

Voting yes would also give Woodford a voice at the table when it comes to school governance, and that matters a great deal, from policy and curriculum decisions to the district's annual budget. That seems wiser than going it alone and having no say in elementary school matters.

Perhaps if Woodford votes yes, Pownal will reconsider its position as well. We struggle to imagine a scenario in which Pownal, with an opportunity to have its fair say on elementary school policy, curriculum and budget matters in the new district, would willingly abstain from participating in discussions that would directly affect the town's parents and children.

A revote, however, is no guarantee that Woodford will reverse its position. It may have voted no by a margin of two votes, but vote no it did. It may do so again.

Then, it would be up to the state to determine whether it will carry through on the implied threat that has been part of Act 46 from the start: Consolidate yourselves, or we might do it for you.

Opponents of the merger proposal have argued that submitting a report to the state detailing how the SVSU is already meeting the goals of Act 46 without a merger would allow the district to continue business as usual. But we're hardly optimistic that the SVSU or its member districts would win that debate with the state, considering that they have successfully run a regional high school district for decades. That cat is out of the bag.

With that in mind, and considering that only 74 voters turned out to decide Woodford's educational future the first time, it's fitting that the town take another swing at the question.

Generally, we're of the mind that revotes ought to be used like pepper sauce — sparingly and cautiously. But this isn't a salt shed bond or a new dump truck that's being reconsidered. This is the future at stake for Woodford, its school and its children, and it's worth deeper consideration.


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