Our View: Uncertainty follows Act 46 vote

So now we know for certain: There will be no 11th hour rescue of the proposed Act 46 merger that would have created a school district in Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford along the lines and governance structure of the Mount Anthony Union secondary school district.

Woodford voters were asked to reconsider their vote on the proposal, which was defeated by two votes on Nov. 7. Tuesday, the second time around, it lost by 20 votes.

If Woodford had said yes, it would have joined Bennington and Shaftsbury in approving the proposal, and the merger would have moved forward.

But Woodford has decided to remain on the sidelines with Pownal. And now, the list of things we don't know about the future of our schools is a good deal longer than the list of things we do know.

How will Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe and the state Board of Education react to the region's refusal to consolidate under Act 46? There's a lot of speculation on this most important question, here and in other regions where the consolidation process has failed, and there's a troubling lack of clarity from Montpelier on what the district, and other Vermont districts in the same boat, can expect. We do know that the town districts will have an opportunity to comment on the plan after June 30, and that it will be finalized on Nov. 30.

Can the schools successfully argue that the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union is already meeting many of the requirements of Act 46? Perhaps they'll be able to make that case. But we have a hard time envisioning how towns that have been part of a successful regional middle and high school for 50 years will be able to argue with a straight face that they're somehow better off going it alone — or that they can't possibly co-exist.

Will the state Board of Education mandate an Act 46 merger, and if so will be it along the lines of what was proposed, or nothing like it? Given all the hints and clues Gov. Phil Scott and his administration have dropped about the need to streamline the state's K-12 schools, it seems likely to us that the state will use the power granted by the legislature and make mergers and consolidations happen. Just last week, in his State of the State speech, Scott talked about the need to "work together to transform our K through 12 system, based on the needs of our kids and not nostalgia."

The district could have chosen certainty — a merger on its own terms, with a government structure that mirrored what has worked for MAU for 50 years and safeguards assuring the closure of its smaller elementary schools would not be made in haste or by less than a significant majority. It did not.

Instead, we are left afraid that the results of these votes will only harden feelings between Bennington and Shaftsbury, which voted yes, and Pownal and Woodford, which voted no, and make their future cooperation on education matters all the more difficult. Shifting the paradigm from mistrust to cooperation will require real leadership in each of these communities. It will require leaders who can see beyond their town lines and understand that our towns are stronger together.

Lastly, if the state is to force a merger, then we hope that the plan endorsed by the majority of voters across the four towns — a board representing all four towns, elected and proportioned in similar fashion, and offering a period of protection against school closure — will be honored in Montpelier. Holcombe and the board are under no obligation to do so, but a plan endorsed by a majority across the four towns would stand a much better chance of success where it counts most: educating the children of our communities.


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