Commentary: Building a brighter future for Vermont's students

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I have served on the South Royalton school board for past 11 years. I was elected on to the board of the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA) in 2011 where I have been fortunate to work with school board members from around the state to address the challenges created by growing fiscal, demographic, educational and political pressures.

These pressures are real and I see the effects on the students in my community and neighboring communities growing every year. In my region we have four high schools that collectively graduated 80 students this year. The opportunities available in each of these schools vary widely – many do not offer AP courses, band, or a diversity of classes – and students are asking us to do better.

As valedictorian of her class, my daughter recently gave a speech at the South Royalton High School graduation. After noting the small size of the community and her graduating class she said, "It becomes a problem when you have classes of one person, or three people. I mean, that's not really a class. You don't have the number of opinions and perspectives that you really need in the classroom to have everyone learn and grow as much as we can."

Act 46 is not aimed at consolidating schools, rather it is intended to address the fiscal, equality and opportunity issues that our schools are facing. It has created a forum for our communities to come together and develop a plan to address the concerns raised by my daughter and her peers.

Vermont's public education system is a source of great pride for Vermonters. And rightly so. But at a time of declining enrollment where many school boards are caught in the death spiral of cutting programs in order to avoid skyrocketing tax rates, our obligation as trustees of this system is to lead our communities in a new direction. I'm proud of the school board members in our region for the hours of work they have and will continue to invest in this critical leadership task.

Similarly, the VSBA board, a 23-member group of school board members from around the state, decided that standing on the sidelines of the policy debate or opposing district consolidation was not in the interests of the students or taxpayers of Vermont. The VSBA was incorporated as an association in 1961 for the following purposes:

• To promote and stimulate interest in education

• To cooperate with other organized educational groups

• To assist school directors in promoting better educational opportunities for the children of Vermont

The VSBA was founded to work on the education of Vermont's children, not to protect school board positions.

The VSBA is governed by bylaws, resolutions, and policies, just like any other non-profit organization. Over the course of two years starting in 2013, the VSBA board led conversations with our membership through forums, webinars, and one-on-one discussions about the leadership and governance challenges that we face.

In February of 2014, the VSBA board unanimously agreed that Vermont had very real equity, fiscal and opportunity problems and that the VSBA should be a leader in addressing those issues. Later that year, at our annual membership meeting, our members eliminated a long-standing resolution opposed to mandatory consolidation and replaced it with a resolution calling for initiatives "designed to create greater equity in high quality learning opportunities and to achieve cost effectiveness. Any initiative that impacts our governance structure must be designed in a way that reflects our community values."

In January of 2015, consistent with the resolution passed by the membership, the VSBA board nearly unanimously adopted a framework for legislative action. It was a framework focused on clear goals and outcomes, flexibility to achieve those outcomes through locally-designed solutions, and some carrots and sticks to help move districts forward. Act 46 closely tracks that framework, which is why the VSBA did not oppose the law when it passed.

As a school board member in the trenches, I know how difficult these conversations are. Some of us are uncertain about whether a merged school district will lead to better options for students and what the loss of a local board will mean for our communities. Not changing how we educate students in Vermont means continuing the lack of opportunity, equity issues, and high per pupil costs that we now face. Change is uncomfortable and never easy.

But I've never been more hopeful about the future of public education in this state. We have the opportunity to create something better for kids. And that's what public education is all about – giving every child a chance to be their best.

At the conclusion of her graduation speech, my daughter asked our community to keep an open mind when they vote on a merger plan next year. "I ask you, when you have the opportunity to vote, please vote for your children and for our future as students. Do not vote for what we had in the past."

Act 46 requires us all to let go of the past and build a brighter future for our children. It's hard work, but I know Vermonters are up to the task.

Geo Honigford is a member of the South Royalton School Board, and the vice president of the Vermont School Boards Association. The views expressed here are his own. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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