Voting to approve merger is right decision

On Tuesday the towns of Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, and Woodford will decide whether or not to merge their school districts, along with the Mount Anthony Union district. While many questions still remain about how the newly merged district will operate, we believe that voting to approve the merger is the right decision.

Opponents of this proposal have said many times that a 'no' vote is a vote against Act 46. This could not be further from the truth. As Sen. Brian Campion and Rep. Alice Miller expressed in no uncertain terms last week, Act 46 is the law, whether we agree with it or not. Over half the districts in the state have already held successful merger votes. If the vote on Tuesday does not pass, the law gives the Secretary of Education and State Board of Education the right to merge the districts anyway, and all indications are that they intend to merge the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union into the least number of practicable districts. Whether this means a single board, similar to how this proposal is laid out, or a unified elementary board that would exist side-by-side with the existing MAU board, consolidation is coming.

This proposal, created as the result of two years of community discussion followed by a fast-paced summer of hashing out the details by the current Act 46 committee and consultant Dan French, adds in a number of locally negotiated protections into the articles that are not guaranteed to be present should the merger be dictated by the state. The committee laid out a board structure similar to how the MAU board is set up today, with eleven members who all represent their own communities but are elected by everyone. This hybrid "at-large" model allows a board structure that is not strictly proportional, so that Bennington does not hold a majority of the seats on the board. This compromise has served these communities well for almost half a century and ensures that the smaller communities continue to have a real voice in how their children are educated.

The articles on the table also guarantee that no structural changes, including moving groups of students (such as Pownal or Shaftsbury's sixth graders) or closing of schools can happen for at least five years after the district goes into operation, one additional year to what Act 46 requires. Additionally, in order to close a school, the board must make two 75 percent votes spaced at least a year apart. These were protections that were agreed upon by members of our school community, and there is no indication that the state will take them into account in their own merger plan for the district.

With all that being said, this does not have to be simply making the best of a bad situation. There is the potential to see real benefits to the delivery of education that would come out of having a merged district. By eliminating district borders, the new unified board could work toward meeting the needs of all students, not just the ones from any one town. The new board would have the opportunity to implement inter-district school choice, which many parents have called for. Staff could be moved to where they are needed most, which could both improve outcomes for students and add job security for teachers. Rather than preparing the same reports for six different boards, the central office staff would have more time to focus on improving educational services. A truly unified curriculum would also ensure that all schools are working together toward the same goal.

By seventh grade, we treat all of our students as "ours," regardless of what town they come from. It's about time that we expand that mindset to include all students.


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