Letter: School district mergers reflect reality of interconnectedness
In light of the culmination of school merger plans mandated by Act 46, David M. Clark laments that the law is an assault on local democracy in favor of a centralized bureaucracy that he describes in hyperbolic terms as, a "cumbersome and all powerful megalith." As an example of the calamity that is bound to ensue due to merger, he posits that Grafton Elementary School is likely to close because Westminster residents will tire of paying to heat it and will have the power shutter the school because of at-large voting in the new consolidated school board. Some perspective is in order here.
First, as long as Grafton Elementary School continues to enroll about 100 students (or anywhere even close to that,) it is not in danger of closing. If the school was teetering on the edge with an enrollment of half that or less, then it would be in danger of closing, and for good reason. A school that small cannot serve all its students in a cost effective manner given the fixed price of labor and building maintenance, not to mention the difficulty in delivering top-notch special education, behavior management, enrichment, and specials (like art, PE etc). When towns become so tiny that they lack a critical mass to deliver essential services they become disempowered as a natural consequence of a dwindling and aging population.
It seems then that Clark's objection is more philosophical than practical. He values town meeting as an end in and of itself rather than a means to prudent and equitable governance. I get that a lot of people like the quaintness of town meeting, but this is not an argument for why it should be preserved. Town meeting is largely an anachronism. It hails from an age in which residents of tiny Vermont towns lived much more self-contained lives within their rural farming communities. Now that the vast majority of Vermonters are not tethered to their communities, their lives are regional in nature. To take southern Windham County as an example, most Guilford and Dummerston residents travel to Brattleboro to shop, attend a show or movie, and travel to Brattleboro or elsewhere for work. Given these realities, only the die-hards show up to town meeting; statewide participation hovers around 10 percent of eligible voters. While local direct democracy sounds lovely, in practice it amounts to a tiny (often relatively elite) minority making key decisions.
Meanwhile, our economic, cultural, and civic lives are inextricably linked in countless ways that transcend tidy boxes drawn on a map over 200 years ago. Hub towns like Brattleboro are essential to the identity and lifestyle of outlying towns, yet these towns contribute relatively little to the maintenance of our roads, public safety, and public spaces while enjoying them on a near daily basis. Rather than doubling down on a balkanized and provincial form of governance in which those who literally speak the loudest take the day, we should transform our local government to fairly and efficiently reflect the reality of our interconnectedness. School district mergers are exactly about doing that. We shouldn't stop there. Why not merge our towns into larger regional municipalities (or maybe regional alliances) that are accurate and fair reflections of the way we currently organize our lives?
Brattleboro, Nov. 6
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