Letter: The unintended consequences of Act 46
One of the most unfortunate consequence of Act 46 is the potential break up of very well operating supervisory unions that have been working well for many years to serve all of their students.
Windham Southeast Supervisory Union has been in the 706b study committee mode since last November. The local school boards thought they were joining a committee to thoroughly study all of the many options. They were not told that they could do an exploratory study and involve all of the communities before joining the committee. Nor were they told that once on it, they can not get out or change a town's study committee representative. This caused quite a division between towns and the committee.
Since the beginning, the WSESU study committee and the administration have been on a one way track to merge all five towns in an "accelerated merger." This option promised "incentives" and other monies if completed by June 30. However, according to the Vermont Agency of Education and its secretary, these "incentives" are merely offsets to cover the costs of merging. They will not be property tax relief. "Other options" were given lip service and quickly dismissed. This feels like the end of community controlled rural schools. Once merged, local schools will no longer have a local school board elected by members of their community. The towns will no longer own their school buildings and property that they have spent years and millions of dollars building and maintaining. There will no longer be a local school budget, so the school portion of town meetings will cease to exist. Students and teachers can be moved from town to town, grade configuration can be changed and schools can even be closed. All this and much more can be done by the administration and the super board on which each small town will only have one vote. The larger towns will rule. The small towns literally will have no say or choice as to what happens to their school.
The WSESU Study Committee did not meet the deadline for the "accelerated merger." Many people are asking them to slow down, take a year and thoroughly study other options. However, it appears from their recent meetings that they are going full steam ahead on an option that is basically identical to the "accelerated merger" and headed to a vote in November. In the meantime, Vernon has pulled out of the study committee because they have a sixty year history of "school choice" for grades 7 to 12 and would have to give that up if they stayed in both the SU and the high school district. So now, not only could the SU be broken up but so could the high school district (which has been together since the 1950s). This is a terrible unintended consequence.
Windham Central Supervisory Union started the process by forming an exploratory committee made up of board members from all of their SU towns. They got a facilitator through a state grant and spent several meetings studying what their towns valued and what direction they might prefer to go. Some of the towns in this district also set up informal study committees, which included members of their community. They had town forums, did town surveys, etc. They are now starting the formal 706b study committees. However, some towns are looking at other options, with towns both in and out of their union. They are also looking at having or maintaining choice, whether to stay with their high school district or to leave. If towns leave their high school district, which has a very good reputation, this high school may not have enough students to be viable. If this does happen, this excellent small high school will have to close and the involved towns will have to join another high school miles away. This is an unintended consequence,
I am hopeful that with all of the upcoming changes in the legislative makeup this coming November, there will be positive changes to Act 46. I do not believe that anyone imagined these consequences that are tearing towns, districts and supervisory unions apart. Our only option now is to really understand the positions of the people we vote for this November. Hopefully Act 46 can be changed or modified to really be beneficial to all of our students and communities, without taking away our local democratic rights.
Jody Normandeau is a resident of Dummerston.
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