Education Matters: Making a stew — a reflection on Act 46

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When Act 46 passed in the Vermont Legislature, it was as if the Vermont lawmakers said to the school boards: "Some of you are having steak, and some of you are having to go without any meat. So, make stew. Make something that treats everyone equitably — and at a lower cost.

"And ... if you make your stew fast enough, we'll even give your towns some money to help with the transition costs.

"Oh, and by the way, if you do not make stew, in a few years, we'll make it for you."

In November 2015, the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union voted to form a "study committee," which looks at all the options of different types of stew — the types of mergers possible under the law. We are keeping in mind the purpose behind the law: improve equity to students, and decrease costs to taxpayers as it is possible.

When making a stew as a group, you quickly realize that not everyone can put in everything. We can't, for example, keep our current governance system. So, sometimes, we have taken things out and had to examine it. What sort of flavor did that governance system bring to the dish? What can be used to maintain that flavor? Or could it be enhanced with something else? In the case of the governance system, for example, we would take out the current school board structure in all of our outlying towns and our Brattleboro boards (Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, Vernon, Brattleboro Town and Brattleboro Union High School).

Sometimes, we decide to put something else in. We've looked at expanding some programs currently in use in Brattleboro's elementary schools, which have shown great educational results, especially for our children in poverty.

Always, our goal is to make the best dang stew we can.

Now, admittedly, there are some that just are not happy about stew. They wanted to continue to focus on steak, if that's what a town wanted, or a very stripped down, basic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, if that's what their voters have decided that they can afford. The very idea of someone forcing them to serve up stew is decidedly unappealing.

Without a doubt, there are many positive things happening in our supervisory union–and there is much nutrition in peanut butter and steak and stew. Some have implored that we should continue the way we are, perhaps with some tweaks to the menus and serving styles. At our Act 46 meeting this Thursday night, at least six different people asked Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe that very question: "Can't our supervisory union complete a self-study option, do some minor tweaking, maintain our current system and boards and town meeting votes and still meet the law? Aren't we good enough?"

Although the secretary's answers were polite and complimentary towards our current system, she clearly answered that, in the eyes of the state, our supervisory union is not equitable. When pushed, Secretary Holcombe affirmed that, if we were to send up a self-study option of maintaining the status quo of our current system, we would not be approved under the current board.

She said, "Really, you have to make stew."

I think, myself, that there will always be some of us in our towns who just don't like stew. We don't like being told what to eat. Or maybe there are vegetarians, who don't like the stew because there is meat in it ... or maybe they are allergic to carrots, and we've put them in. Again, the study committee has a goal to make the best dang stew we can.

During the making of the stew, we have some taste testers, too–people who come to the meetings or send in comments. In fact, we have a "stew tasting" scheduled for April 6, here in Brattleboro, called a community forum. There is one in Guilford on Monday, March 21, and there will be more in all towns as the process goes forward.

We listen. We may take out some salt, or add in some pepper. Hopefully we are not throwing out the recipe to go from, say, beef to lamb, after so much work and thought going into the concoction we've made so far. But the recipe is not fixed at this point–indeed, as I stressed to the Brattleboro voters, the study committee has not yet officially voted to proceed with "Accelerated Merger." There are other options of stew — some of which fit into the requirements of the law more easily than others. As a part of our stew making process, we are continually analyzing and thinking about which option makes sense.

But, one can't dally about in the kitchen, making stew forever. Eventually, you have to eat the stew–or go figure out what else there is for food.

In the case of this law, if the study committee decides to go for "Accelerated Merger" (which has the biggest assistance with transition costs, in the form of tax incentives of 10 cents the first year, then 8, 6, 4 and eventually 2 cents), you have to meet a deadline. The study committee has to vote on proceeding with Accelerated Merger — or going with another option — soon. Because, by May 17, we must send our stew recipe up to the State Board of Education for approval — if we are to receive the tax incentives for our town.

But either way, if we decide to make the "Accelerated Merger stew" or if we decide to choose another flavor with a longer deadline (and lower incentives), we must make stew. And the voters will have their chance, under any system, to taste test it at community forums in each of our towns.

And then, finally, before June 30, probably around mid-June, we go to a vote of every single town in our supervisory union. This is the final approval of our stew.

If you are interested in the process of the stew making, check the our supervisory union's website for the next meeting date. The study committee meets weekly. You can also watch the meetings on BCTV. Additionally, contact information for all members of the study committee, frequently asked questions, links to other town's documentation, background information and much more are on our website at the Act 46 link at www.wssu.k12.vt.us.

One last note: I write this on my own, and am not speaking on behalf of the Act 46 Study Committee members. They are, however, all fairly familiar with my stew-making analogy, no matter how hungry they happen to be.

Jill Stahl Tyler is chairwoman of the Brattleboro Town School Board and a member of the Brattleboro School Endowment. Contact her at jill@globalcow.com.


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