Our view: Where's the fire?
It strains logic and common sense to expect two school supervisory unions to work toward a merger at the same time they're reinventing K-12 education on the fly, by necessity, in the midst of a global pandemic.
But the state Board of Education is expecting the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, comprised of Arlington and Sandgate, to push forward in its merger with the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, representing Bennington-area schools, despite the unprecedented challenges brought about by COVID-19.
The supervisory union merger is to take place on July 1, 2021. But the Board of Education, convinced by member Oliver Olsen of Londonderry that the Battenkill Valley and Southwest Vermont supervisory unions are dragging their feet and contemplating asking for an extension, has waded in with a letter reminding them they're to meet their deadline, no exceptions. Both supervisory unions would prefer to put it off instead.
Mr. Olsen seems strongly invested in assuring this merger happens on the timeline mandated by the Board of Education. The Board of Education's March 18 meeting minutes — less than a week after Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency across Vermont to fight the spread of COVID-19 — show that Mr. Olsen drove the discussion on the matter and took on the task of writing the letter from the board to the Southwest Vermont and Battenkill Valley supervisory unions, telling them to get down to brass tacks.
Mr. Olsen said his concern is the impact a delayed merger would have on students. But we do not see how pushing a merger in the middle of a pandemic provides any benefit to students and teachers. And we know from Act 46 mergers across the state that they don't save nearly as much money as advertised. In fact, ramming through this merger over the next year is more likely to detract from the schools' educational missions.
This simply isn't the time.
A former state legislator representing the Windham-Bennington-Windsor district, Mr. Olsen is also the moderator of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union's annual meeting and a former trustee of Burr and Burton Academy. He has spent enough time working in education policy to know that schools are now facing unanticipated and unprecedented challenges.
Mr. Olsen has also been an outspoken champion of school choice. He was a vocal opponent of controversial policies governing independent schools, proposed in 2016, that were seen by some as a threat to choice in Vermont.
So it is quite strange that Mr. Olsen is now more than willing to micromanage public school management in the middle of a crisis, to the point that he drafted the letter sent to the Battenkill Valley and Southwest Vermont supervisory unions, warning them to do as they were told.
If he wanted to get Arlington's attention, mission accomplished.
"To even imply that we're having some effect on kids' education is foolishness," Arlington School Board Chairman Todd Wilkins said last week. "I'd love to hear specifically from the Board and the individual who authored this letter exactly how he feels that we are having some sort of effect on kids' education that's negative."
Maybe it's time that happened — to clear the air and reach an understanding that allows Battenkill Valley, Southwest Vermont and the Board of Education to work together moving forward. They're all stuck with each other, and the current discord certainly offers no benefit to anyone involved.
Before its arranged marriage with Southwest Vermont, Battenkill Valley had hoped to explore a merger with Bennington-Rutland, serving greater Manchester. But Bennington-Rutland asked out of such an arrangement, saying it was already weighed down with the considerable challenges of its own Act 46 district mergers. Bennington-Rutland pointed out it already operates three very different districts and made the case that it lacked the bandwidth to add Arlington, a public K-12 district, to that mix.
Don't the Southwest Vermont and Battenkill Valley supervisory unions deserve similar consideration as they attempt to guide teachers and students through all the challenges of distance and at-home learning? Hasn't this crisis handed educators, students and parents more than they ever possibly thought they could handle?
Consistency, decency and common sense all dictate that Mr. Olsen and the Board of Education back off. The merger they voted for will eventually happen when it makes sense. That's not now.
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