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Henningsen: Slowing Down Consolidation

As they consider the current house bill mandating school district consolidation many Vermonters seem wary of both intended and unintended consequences. They’re right.Overwhelmed by details and under intense pressure to deliver, policy planners often forget that today’s solution can be tomorrow’s problem. Look at Maine. While it’s been somewhat successful, Maine’s overall school consolidation effort was messy, with fewer savings than anticipated and unexpected new costs, particularly in administration. A number of districts forced into shotgun weddings are now seeking divorce. Maine and New Hampshire both offer painful lessons in how towns used to having a say in school affairs are silenced when oversight shifts to a district board. All stakeholders agree that any new consolidation policy will have enormous economic and social repercussions. We should explore them before acting.

There’s no universal solution. Mergers that benefit high-schoolers through access to a wider variety of courses and more advanced offerings, won’t necessarily help six-year olds, who thrive in smaller schools with more individual attention and support.

And we shouldn’t accept cost estimates at face value. Practical experience suggests that any proposed solution will save less than predicted and cost more.

Legislative debates and intense media scrutiny have focused Vermonters’ attention on this issue. That’s good. Unless a majority feels part of the decision, there won’t be the public buy-in needed for implementation. But it’s not there yet.

As the legislature faces mounting opposition and potential non-compliance, I hope lawmakers will continue to consider creative compromise instead of confrontation. Eliminate mandates that smack of one-size-fits all. Keep spending caps. Give towns and districts time to devise possible combinations that will work locally. Review the Maine experience more thoroughly, if only to be clear on what to avoid. Most of all, pay attention to our youngest students. Educational research stresses the value of investment in early childhood education so any new policy should give local districts flexibility to be creative with primary education. But make it clear that if we can’t come up with anything in two years, the Legislature will mandate its own solution.

We know Vermont’s educational status quo is unsustainable, but we’re rightly leery of top-down solutions. Given the chance, Vermonters have been imaginative in solving problems of all kinds. Why should this be any different?

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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