Governor Shumlin often touts his credentials as a savvy businessman. No doubt, he'd cite good business practices to defend his recent brow-beating of local school boards for spending too much money. He can't understand why a long-term decrease in student enrollment hasn't led to a corresponding drop in school costs. The numbers dictate the story -- or do they?
Outside of larger towns, Vermont has a scattered population of children organized into scores and scores of local schools. In some small schools, overall student population can change significantly with the loss of only a few families. But no matter how small the school, every student deserves equal educational opportunities. The governor looks at these community schools, sees an unfavorable balance sheet and dreams of closing and consolidating them into a much smaller number of district schools.
Communities see something more. Because of our neighborhood schools, those of us with children have gotten to know a community of people whom we would have never otherwise known or valued. Such a cross section gives us a better understanding of just what we have going for ourselves in our neighborhoods. Rubbing elbows with others at school events leads to discoveries of shared interests and to the sharing of resources. The heart of many a small community, where Town Meeting is held, where special events and meetings are held, where every child is equally welcomed, is its school.
As enrollments decline and costs per student rise, towns have to make hard choices. Do they cut educational services, close the school and consolidate with a neighboring town, or decide to pay a much higher tax bill to support an "inefficient" school? Facing this question, residents of Brookline decided to merge with Newfane in 2009. The two communities share a similar geography on either side of the West River and the route from one school to the other runs level and not too far. Going on five years later, the combined NewBrook Elementary is thriving and the consolidation seems to have been successful.
But the town of Windham has a different reality. Their school teaches one of the smallest number of students of any in the state. But Windham sits at an elevation of 1,759 feet. The road leading out to the next town drops 1,000 feet as it turns its way down to Route 30. In some winter weather, getting in and out of town takes a determined driver with purpose. Consolidating the Windham School would mean busing children up and down that road every day. Every school activity or event would require a significantly larger investment of time, logistics and gasoline than it does now. It would mean that instead of being the center of their community, nurtured by their school to move on to Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School as prepared and eager seventh graders, Windham children would be the handful of hill kids who get to come down and navigate fitting in to a larger school outside of their community.
Windham has decided to keep and support their school. Their property taxes may be higher as a result, but they have decided that their children are worth the cost.
School consolidation decisions have large and lasting effects on a town. No one is better equipped to weigh the pros and cons than the people who live there. It's ironic that at the same time that the state is rolling out its new educational standards that emphasize multiple pathways to learning, it would like to shut down the multiple local paths we now have with our local control of elementary school systems. Are our local schools imperfect? Sure they are, just like schools everywhere. Should we give up supporting them with our tax dollars and let their programs shrivel until consolidation is the only viable option left to meet standards? Not unless we're ready to call it quits as a community. But throughout the state, the opposite is happening. Especially since the rebuilding after tropical storm Irene, community projects and buildings and organizations and clubs and gardens have been planted and are growing. Bereft of any confidence in our national politics, we are welcoming the chance to cultivate community and recognize the need to support a thriving local democracy.
Shumlin's attack on school boards also misses the mark because the real culprits in the property tax hike is the state spending formula that determines the rate and the unfunded federally mandated services that our schools must provide. The funding mechanism is so convoluted that few understand it fully. This year, some school boards will go to their towns with a level funded budget, but the voters will still have to suffer a significant hike in property taxes because of the state funding formula.
Shumlin and the Legislature need to stop stalling and fix the way we fund education in Vermont. Local school boards are representing their communities. They should be applauded for their austerity and supported as they guide their schools through the ever-changing seas of education reform, federal mandates and state initiatives.
Dan DeWalt writes from Newfane.