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Clark: Deliberate Speed

The Vermont legislature is considering a bill that would replace Vermont’s local school boards with larger, consolidated, regional control. The potential for either educational benefits or cost savings is hotly debated. But one thing is clear from public reaction: if passed, it would create polarization and push-back for years to come.

If we’re serious about making systemic change in Vermont education, mandates aren’t the answer. What we need is an authentic, heart-to-heart conversation.

By way of comparison, let’s consider the path of another critical Vermont issue: agriculture. Back in the day, Vermont farms were farms. There wasn’t a lot more to the discussion. But by the 1970s, farms were disappearing. Some said, “You can’t fight progress. You can’t have both rural values and modern economic success.” Others didn’t accept that trade-off.

Through land trusts, Vermonters began protecting farm land. But supporters soon realized they had to go beyond this, and protect “farming ” – meaning the community systems that support agriculture. We needed to change the conversation. And we did. Over time, statewide conferences and facilitated community discussions revealed surprising truths. Maybe farmers thought they were producing milk and apples. But as we talked about it, Vermonters realized that farms mean much more to us.

Farms are critical to Vermont tourism. Farms are important to Vermonters’ health, because fresh produce is key to good nutrition. Farming’s neighborly cooperation dramatically shapes both our economy and our communities. And Vermonters breathe in the beauty of farms – they’re woven into our art, history - even poetry. Vermonters can now articulate a consensus: farms aren’t just farms. Our working rural land is part of all of us – and we want to invest in it.

Never underestimate the power of a common vision. It opens the doors to previously inconceivable collaborations. From urban composting, to portable slaughter facilities, to the innovative “Farm to Plate” network that allows Vermonters on food assistance to shop at farmers’ markets - we’ve created a web of synergistic solutions. It’s time to do the same thing for education. Some legislative leaders are proposing a statewide public dialogue, so we can change the conversation.

As long we believe the choice is between good schools and sustainable taxes, or between administrative efficiency and local democracy, we’ll stay stuck. What we need is mutual respect, more listening, and a commitment to finding common ground. And we need to involve everyone – experts, certainly, but also average citizens. They’re not called “public” schools for nothing.

A good public conversation takes time, and a neutral, non-partisan convener. It starts with questions, not answers. If the questions are framed carefully, it allows for complexity and regional diversity. And it’s accountable, with actions based on findings. We must surround our education issues with the creative, solution-oriented thinking of Vermonters as a whole. If we build a common vision, we can create lasting solutions.

Susan Clark is a facilitator, educator, and the co-author of "Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home." She is also Town Moderator of Middlesex, Vermont.
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