Our opinion: Forced merger districts need to trust each other
The Brattleboro School District, and other districts that will soon be dissolved as state-mandated Act 46 mergers in Southern Vermont take effect, has an important housekeeping measure in front of it: What to do with the district's reserve funds?
In Brattleboro's case, that's an estimated $700,000.
Here's the quandary: Once the Windham Southeast school district merger is completed, those assets belong to the new school district, and the dissolved district has nothing more to say about how the funds will be used.
At a recent meeting, Brattleboro School Board members and town residents suggested a laundry list of potential uses for the money. Some of those suggested uses were educational, or at the very least pointed at serving the community's youth in some form or fashion.
But some suggested giving the money back to the town, or placing it into an account where the new school district could not touch it.
The very best idea, however, might have been not spending or moving it at all.
"I think we have to learn and work on resolving some of the animosities, some of the concerns, and learn to work together, not as four towns but as one merged district," said board member George Carvill of West Brattleboro. "I really think that there are good, proper moral reasons for letting this money flow into the new, unified district."
Carvill gets it. A new entity, which a majority of voters previously said they didn't want, must now figure out how to bring those interests together for the common good. It starts with trust.
There's precedent in Southern Vermont for just that.
In the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, which saw two successful Act 46 mergers — including the nine-town Taconic and Green Regional School District — the new boards were asked to honor the wishes of the former districts when it came to use of their reserve funds. Each dissolving board voted to express how they'd like the funds used, and the new board voted to honor its dissolving boards' wishes. Those votes made in public, and they're in the minutes.
This is more remarkable than it looks. The towns of the Taconic & Green are widely different in a number of ways. They had no union high school to bind them together in governing a school district, as Mount Anthony Union and Brattleboro Union have for 50 years.
What the T&G did have was a merger committee that established a mantra: "All our kids are all our kids." What that means for the T&G board is that students from all nine towns are equally important, and that competing geopolitical interests and parochial stereotypes should be left at the door. The children in these forced merger districts will someday attend the same middle and high schools, play in the same marching bands and soccer teams, and hopefully will be conferred the same diploma on a sunny June someday. Their welfare, and the quality of their education, should not be determined by the arbitrary town lines that New Hampshire Colonial Gov. Benning Wentworth drew at his desk in 1749. They are all Vermonters, equal in the eyes of the law.
It's true that Act 46, in its hamfisted fashion, has stuck school districts together in mergers they did not want. But the Legislature approved it and the courts have upheld it, and it's not going away. The best chance for these new districts to succeed is to come together, despite their misgivings and hard feelings. Otherwise, this is not going to work as well as it should, and it's the kids who will suffer for that failure.
The challenge, then, is for the newly-elected boards and the dissolving boards to conduct a real-life trust exercise, in which the dissolving boards turn over their assets, and the new boards pledge to use them as directed. It's a seemingly simple step, but it could go a long way in ensuring future success.
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