Our view: A growth opportunity for SVSU

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Last week, the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union held its first board meeting since it found out that the Arlington and Sandgate school districts will be moved into their supervisory union by the state Board of Education in 2021.

No one involved is thrilled about the situation. Arlington and Sandgate were expecting they'd eventually merge with the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union; the SVSU, which has its own Act 46 merger to handle in Bennington, Shaftsbury, Pownal and Woodford, was given little in the way of advance notice.

In addition, the Board of Education has mandated that Arlington receive three seats on the SVSU board. Presently, the SVSU's operating districts receive two seats (and one alternate), and nonoperating districts such as Sandgate receive one. The SVSU board unanimously requested last week that the BOE rethink that requirement.

We can understand that the SVSU board might feel like the state is adding insult to injury by insisting that Arlington receive a third seat. And we can understand that Arlington might still feel outnumbered once it joins the SVSU, whether it has two seats or three.

But challenge and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. And here's an opportunity that could help make this transition work for the better.

In two years, the SVSU will have a very different landscape. Why not revamp board representation completely and make a new start? Such an approach could help integrate Arlington and Sandgate into the SU with less drama, and allow all sides to benefit from what each can bring to the table.

The Board of Education is in charge of how SU boards operate, so they'd get the final call on such a plan. For example: In 2013, the SVSU had to obtain a waiver from BOE to go from three members per operating district to two, because three per district was proving unwieldy and made it difficult to achieve a quorum. The BOE, to its credit, said yes.

We think the least the BOE can do in this case is allow the SVSU to innovate and design governance that is inclusive focuses on education rather than town borders and reflects the fresh start that will include a brand-new K-6 district and two new members.

For an example, we look to the Taconic & Green Regional School District board, which has representatives from all nine district towns and another four elected at large from its four largest towns. All 13 seats are elected by the entire district, not town by town — so Mt. Tabor voters help pick the Sunderland member, and Dorset helps choose who represents Londonderry. That gives the board both equal and proportional representation as a whole, and the voters a say in the entire composition of the board, rather than an amalgam of diverse towns that represent only their interests.

Here's why that matters: At an early juncture in its Act 46 merger process, the committee that created the T&G merger realized that "all our kids are all our kids," a mantra its board members invoked as recently as Tuesday night. If a merger had any chance of success in the Northshire, the merger committee decided, it had to be one district educating the entire student population — not five districts representing nine towns. The old political boundaries and rivalries had to go away, for the benefit of the kids.

That's just one idea, and it doesn't have to be the one the SVSU picks. We are confident that given the opportunity, SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen and his team can craft a home-grown plan that works specifically for the supervisory union and gives it the best chance of making the most of this transition for all concerned.




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