A little history:
In the spring of 2015 the Vermont Legislature passed Act 46, a school consolidation law, “designed to encourage and support local decisions and actions.” This quote is from an Agency of Education (AOE) fact sheet. There were five goals to this law: equity; achieve or exceed the state’s Educational Quality Standards; maximize operational efficiencies; promote transparency and accountability; delivered at a cost that parents, voters and taxpayers value.
Most of our area legislators voted against the law but those who voted for it thought that we would not be merged and that there was an exit from merger. Act 46 had two other important provisions. If an area did not want to merge, they could create and present an Alternative Governance Structure (AGS) proposal to the Board of Education (BOE). This was done including many representatives from all of the five towns (at this point Vernon was still with us). The committee included school board members, past board members, teachers and many members of the five communities.
The other provision required a vote of the citizens. At this point Vernon had removed themselves. The vote was held on Nov. 7, 2017. All four towns voted overwhelmingly not to merge in what was a large turnout for a one issue vote. However, this required vote was not respected by the AOE or the BOE. Our area was forced to merge in November 2018 and a transition board was formed to map out the articles of agreement for the new district which was named the Windham Southeast School District (WSESD). In May of 2019, the first board of this newly merged district was formed.
I have been involved with the Dummerston School since 1970, first as a parent, community member, volunteer and as a past school board member. I feel that over the years, the school has been an excellent one. This has been shown by testing and in how our students have fared at secondary schools and beyond. Many of our former students have returned to Dummerston to raise their family and have their children attend the local school. New residents to town claim an important reason for moving here was because of the quality of the school.
Since the merger, I have attended most of the board meetings. I do feel that the present members of the board have been very thoughtful people, unlike what has happened in many regions of the state. Other areas have either already closed schools, or are planning to. But any election could change the decisions the board could make here. This board has put in place several needed committees, many of which were proposed in the AGS plan. If we were to dissolve this merger, these committees could remain under the supervisory union. We would not have to lose any good that has come from consolidation.
However, it is my feeling that consolidation is unwieldy. Ten members on a board covering 10 schools in four communities is a mammoth job. It requires members to be on multiple committees as well as attending two board meetings a month. Meetings are three to four hours long. The recent one lasted five and one half hours and they still did not finish their work. Most of the members of this board do not know all of the schools, their students, parents, teachers, principal or community members. They do not know the values of each school or of the communities in which the schools are located.
On a consolidated board, transparency gets lost. Most board members are not known in communities other than the one they represent. A $52 million-plus budget is incomprehensible to most people. Even though the public gets to speak at meetings, they are limited usually in time. If someone wants to speak on an item not on the agenda, they must wait through hours of a meeting before getting their chance.
On the other hand, if we could go back to local boards, I feel that there would be many benefits. Past board members were locally elected. Meetings were shorter, as they involved just the local school. The public was welcome and allowed to speak. The principal was involved in board meetings, and teachers were welcome any time and were often there to talk about their class and what they were doing. As board members knew their community members, they were more responsive. The board knew the teachers and the students. I always felt it was like a family.
The school budget was under $3 million and was explained and looked at thoroughly every year at Town Meeting. Suggestions were made and the budget could be increased or decreased from the floor. I never remember a budget ever being voted down, but I do remember it being increased. The town has always been very supportive of educating our children.
Through consolidation, I feel we have lost a lot: Connection to our school community and students; responsive board members; more transparency; easy access to board and committee meetings; ownership and jurisdiction over our own local school; local school portion of Town Meeting. Fifty percent of Town Meeting is lost because we no longer discuss school issues and budget.
Because of all of this, I will be voting for the dissolution of the merged district and to allow any other town that wants to leave, to do so.