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Henningsen: Consolidation Conversation

Vermont has 277 school districts, each serving an average of slightly more than 300 students – more school board members per student than any state in the union. While this reflects our devotion to local control, it’s under attack as outdated, expensive, and inherently unfair. Some districts fund advanced courses and extensive art, music, and foreign language programs; others struggle to maintain the basics. Many students from weaker districts enter high school behind their peers and struggle to catch up. Some never do. This reinforces a cycle of poorly trained workers, poverty, and pressure on social services.

Worried about unequal educational opportunity and spurred by public anger at steadily rising property taxes even as enrollments decline, lawmakers at the last legislative session proposed consolidating Vermont’s school districts into some 50 or so “education districts”, each serving at least 1000 students. This, it’s said, would permit equal access to advanced courses and programs, necessary to educate tomorrow’s Vermonters.

Criticized by Rep. Jim Masland as “speed dating followed by a shotgun marriage” – that is, those districts not joining voluntarily would face forced mergers – the original plan was modified to extend the process, requiring broad public discussion and further votes in both House and Senate before redistricting could occur. The Senate added a provision that schools couldn’t be closed without community approval. But the bills didn’t make it to the floor; so we’ll be back at it next session.

That may be a blessing. If ever there was something that required a full public airing it should be our response to Vermont’s educational crisis. We can’t continue this way. It’s unaffordable and, morally, we shouldn’t permit inequities in educational opportunity.

But schools are the heart of a community – the one institution in which everyone has a stake and takes an interest. Closing a school hurts a town – some would say kills it. Moreover, many Vermonters instinctively resist the idea that there’s a one-size-fits-all prescription for better schooling.

That’s why a statewide conversation is necessary. Remember, we may differ on details, but everyone wants what’s right for our children and our towns. So instead of arguing, let’s try to work through the details together. We may agree our system of school administration is outdated and that we suffer from unequal educational opportunity, but it may not follow that we must sacrifice local control to gain better learning opportunities. We must determine if consolidation will save money or not. We should investigate the experience of other states, like Maine, which have adopted consolidation plans.

Vermonters have long experience with collective decision-making, because they take civic responsibility seriously and are willing to work through their differences. That’s what democracy is all about. There’s no better topic than our schools and no better time than right now.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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