"You know, you all look like reasonable people," the gentleman said. "You don't look like monsters."
We were at yet another Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Group meeting, determinedly sorting through the details of what a potential "accelerated merger" might mean. His comments came after about two and a half hours of heavy discussion, filled with thoughtful commentary, punctuated with thinly disguised worry, and smoothed by the occasional joke.
We're looking at this option first — because this one offers the largest tax incentive, nearly one million dollars of decreased payments of taxes for our towns all combined. To not look at the option seems blatantly unfair to taxpayers, each school board agreed back in the early fall, as each board appointed its representative to the study group. Its membership mirrors the supervisory union population: three of us from the Brattleboro Elementary School Board, two from Brattleboro from the Brattleboro Union High School Board, and one each from Guilford, Putney, Dummerston and Vernon.
The state requires the completion of a document we are slowly working our way through. Some questions seem relatively easy and straight-forward. Wouldn't it be logical if a unified board would look like our union high school board is already structured? If a school owns a forest — as Putney does — how can we make sure that it stays with the town?
Others are proverbial rabbit holes, every question taking us down another curve to more possible situations to work through. What programs do we have? What should we have? What is equitable? How much does it cost?
And some bring up touchy areas, the types of topics that we don't want to talk about — but we must. Our schools are all very viable now, but what happens if student numbers keep decreasing? What sort of a process should happen before the unified board could make any change, like — gulp — closing a school?
Oh, and then there is the big question that circulates in all of our heads: is this the right thing for each of our individual towns? Guilford's public forum voiced their largest concern: will a larger board close our school–our main gathering? Dummerston attendees articulated that they don't wish to lose their local control. Both Putney and Dummerston visitors have been clear: they want to control their middle schools. Vernon has had school choice since 1954, and they want it to continue. Brattleboro taxpayers have wondered if they will be footing the bill to pay for expanded programming for outlying towns.
With all of that swirling in the background, the sacred cows and the proverbial elephants in the room, one might think that the Act 46 meetings are full of rancor and hard feelings, of divisive arguments and people carving out positions and refusing to listen to another side.
But ... nothing could be further from the truth among the study group members.
Instead, we have already seen benefits from the frank conversations and the honest look at what we do as schools, and the results we're achieving. Conversations spill out into the hallways as we walk out; visits have already been carried out to see what we're up to.
And while there are moments we all still think of "our kids" from each of our own little areas, there is more talk of "all our kids." How do we prepare all of our kids — in technology exposure, for example — so that when they come together no one is left behind — and no one has to wait while others play catchup?
We still have to decide, as a study group, if we want to recommend this accelerated merger. There are public forums to come, and adjustments still to be made. The state has to approve our plan, and the towns all must vote to agree to the merger — a process that must be completed by June.
Sometimes, I think of the political show "West Wing." In one episode, President Bartlet diverts his focus from national midterm elections — to check on a local school board election in his home state of New Hampshire. His staff try to convince him that he has larger matters to attend to — than a school district with 43 kids. But President Bartlet is not deterred, and he replies, "... cause that's where all the governing that really matters to anybody really happens."
Truly, nothing gets people more emotional than talking about children and our dreams for educating them to their fullest potential ... and figuring out how to pay for those opportunities in an equitable fashion.
Act 46 is not perfect; nothing is. I've come to believe, however, that the process we're all going through will make us a better school system. I'm hopeful, too, that it can be done for with less taxpayer money.