No need to merge our school districts
To the people of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union regarding the Act 46 Study Committee proposal to eliminate local town school boards and to create a single larger school board, with the option of closing town schools.
This comes from a large group of citizens who have been working hard to comply with Act 46 and accomplish the goals of Act 46 in the WSESU. There are various options for school districts under the terms of Act 46, and there are different ways for school boards to meet the requirements and goals of the Act, including greater cooperation, sharing of resources, equity for all the students in the region, greater offerings for students, and cost savings.
While the "merger" proposal is one option ('though mergers have generally not resulted in cost savings,) other options involve central purchasing, shared staffing, developing differing offerings at different schools with opportunities for students across the region to benefit from those offerings, 'specials' that are available to all the area schools, shared funds to account for varying financial strengths of the towns as required by the Act, different budget structures, cost sharing, and much more.
The Study Committee, however, was clear that it was unwilling to consider any other options than a merger; options that might (or might not) better meet the needs of the children in the region (so called "alternative governance structures") were off the table. As a result, there has been no official forum for a broader conversation about how our community might meet the requirements of Act 46. Because the sole focus of the Study Committee was the elimination of town school boards and the creation of a combined single school district for all of the towns in the WSESU, there was no opportunity to use the requirements of Act 46 as a chance for community discussion about how we want to structure our schools for the twenty-first century.
Unlike in many other districts, there was no consultant hired to assist with a community process and dialog and with helping with understanding the variety of ways to work with the act. Indeed, the public was excluded from any genuine participation in the Study Committee's process. While there were brief token periods at the outset or end of the meetings for public comments, most of which were (as is clear in the video record) studiously ignored, the Administration and Study Committee have been clear from the outset that they regarded putting together articles for a merger as the committee's work, and that it intended to carry out that work on its own. The notion of greater community input or participation, which has been robust in other districts around the State, was rejected in favor of a closed, bulldozer-like approach, where the major consultation was with the committee's lawyer and with Montpelier, but not with the folks who live here and whose children go to school here and who pay taxes here.
To the extent that there has been communication with the greater public, it has been primarily been one-way, with the committee and administration presenting its work. As mentioned above, however, there is a group of citizens(Local Communities for Local Schools) who care deeply about the education of our children (many are educators who have devoted their lives to working with kids) which has been working hard on a variety of options that meet the goals of Act 46. While it is unfortunate that the central office and study committee have been unwilling to involve themselves in this effort (unlike all of the surrounding Supervisory Unions) this group has nonetheless plowed ahead and is developing choices that both meet the requirements of the Act and are focused on what is best for our children.
We know from experience and from a substantial body of research that children fare best in caring environments where their local communities have and feel a stake in their well-being and involve themselves in their lives. Nowhere is this adult commitment to children's nurturance and growth better seen, encouraged, and expressed than in a community's school — with the emphasis on "community." The deeper and more local the community's ownership (in the various senses of the term) of the school and its operation, the closer, deeper, and more clearly felt (by those children) that caring is; children who come from such environments develop a confidence and resiliency that are fundamental building blocks and predictors of well-being later in life.
There is a powerful argument for locally run schools. Although the approach of the Study Committee has created a good deal of divisiveness in a region that has had a remarkable history of cooperation on all levels of the educational process, we hope that after the defeat of the merger proposal there will be a genuine effort across the boards for the communities to come together and engage in an open and productive conversation about how to best structure our schools in an era of uncertain funding, differing financial strength within the district, and seriously changing enrollments. This is the real opportunity offered by Act 46.
There are many others who have been active in working with alternatives to merger whose names are not on the author list; this list includes people from across the WSESU (and a few from surrounding towns); some school board members or town officials who have also been active did not feel they could sign.
The opinions expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.
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