Our opinion: Act 46's second act

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For the past two and a half years, school districts across Vermont have been waiting for the other shoe to drop on Act 46.

It fell on Friday, well after business hours, with a 189-page report from the state Agency of Education.

For 18 districts across the state, that report meant that the implicit threat in that law's carrot-and stick arrangement — please accept these tax incentives and merge school districts with your neighbors, or we'll make you — was finally coming to fruition. Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar have left on the wind.

Some districts had been unable to make consolidation work, for one reason or another - concerns about finances, loss of local control, a desire to go it alone, inability to get along with the neighbors, geographic isolation, or all of the above.

And so schools in southern Vermont's two largest population centers are being asked to merge, despite both having voted against the idea last year.

In the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, Bennington, Shaftsbury, Pownal and Woodford turned down an elementary school merger by a total of six votes — four in Pownal and two in Woodford. As a whole, voters approved the plan, an indication that despite the prescriptive nature of this process, there's support for the idea. Friday, we learned the state's assessment was that a K-6 union elementary school district in those towns "is both 'possible' and 'practicable.'"

There's a larger hill to climb in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, where Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney all decisively voted no on a merger last fall. Consensus among the stakeholders there seems elusive.

But the Agency of Education was not moved by opposition, or by suggestions of an alternative government structure. It flatly stated that "merger is not 'impossible' or 'impracticable' because of community opposition," and called for a K-12 merger among those four districts.

What now in Bennington and Brattleboro? It may be time to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.

The state is not going to rescind Act 46. The time for that has passed, and too many districts have compromised and moved forward for the remainder to successfully argue for repeal. Those horses have left the barn. What's more, the Legislature's Democratic majority passed this law and shows no sign of changing its mind; and the Scott administration, seeking reductions in education costs, certainly seems unlikely to oppose it.

Furthermore, both communities have been operating merged school districts for decades - namely, their high schools. To say "it won't work" is to suggest those high schools, both more than 50 years old, are a failed experiment that should be abandoned, and no one has made such an outlandish claim.

There is still time for concerned citizens and educators in both larger communities to work together and compromise for terms they can live with, in the hopes that the state might have greater sympathy for a more constructive approach. And in the meantime, the state's educational bureaucracy needs to be more responsive and accountable.

If merger is coming to the WSESU, the divisions between opponents and proponents can only serve to hamstring its initial efforts. And the schools and their students will bear the brunt of that division. That's not to say the fight can't or shouldn't continue; the voters spoke clearly, after all. But all sides should prepare for a reality in which their districts are merged, like it or not, and make the best of the situation for the good of our children.

The Windham Elementary School District is in an even more complicated pickle, given its small size, geographic isolation and the fact that the board never got to present its side to former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe before she resigned.

The AOE recommended Windham join Jamaica, Townshend, NewBrook and Leland & Gray Union High School districts in the West River Modified Unified Union School District. Of that proposal, Windham principal Mickey Parker-Jennings said, "I don't think the state has a clue what is best for the children and residents of Windham when it comes to education."

It would behoove AOE and the Board of Education, which will decide on the plan this fall, to take a closer look at a map, and at Windham's situation, before prescribing a solution of their own choosing. There might not be a solution that suits the district in the end, but at the very least, it deserves to be heard.

Arlington, which operates a K-12 district - the only one of its kind south of Rutland - was not forced into a merger, given the lack of potential dance partners. Its prospects for merger were not judged as "practicable or possible," according to the proposal. However, Arlington is not out of the woods yet, as the report suggested it might yet, at some future time, move Arlington from the two-town supervisory union where it operates, the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, into the supervisory unions serving Bennington or Manchester — a change that might have even more of an impact on Arlington than a merger. The Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union is opposed to that move.

This process, painful as it is, should result in a secure future for schools, not more uncertainty. Arlington's schools, like many others around the state that might face closure, are the heartbeat of a small, tight-knit community. They deserve a firm answer rather than a deferral, or a forced consolidation orchestrated outside of the Act 46 process.

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