Capitol Connection – Week 13
Over eleven of the past twelve weeks I have been in a small committee room with ten other legislators working on the state budget. It is a small room roughly 20 by 20 feet, usually jammed wall to wall with witnesses and television cameras watching our deliberations with baited breath. Many would worry whether we would cut their budgets as we worked to close a $70-million-dollar budget shortfall. As you may have heard from the statewide media we managed to balance the budget without new taxes or fees.
As our work winded down I started to focus on another cause I have been drawn to beyond balancing the budget while protecting the vulnerable. I can best describe that cause in three words, the Vermont Way.
Several years ago a law was enacted that mandated school governance models for school districts across Vermont by requiring them to unite with each other in hopes of achieving savings and efficiencies in the name of consolidation. This law is known as Act 46 and to me is a threat to what I refer to as the Vermont Way. My fear is that while the law says it is not the intent of the state to close small schools, that is the logical result of many merger efforts.
Imagine you are in a small town with a five member locally elected school board. You merge with multiple districts and now have one board member who is part of an eleven-member district board. Several years into the relationship a discussion regarding closing a school starts to unfold as a way to meet a declining student census. Do you think your one member on the eleven-member board will have an adequate voice in the discussion?
Imagine you are required to join a district and several of the towns in the newly formed district have borrowed money. That debt will now be born proportionally by the taxpayers in the other towns who previously had no debt payment in their budgets. Conceivably, citizens from a smaller less wealthy community that could not afford debt may have to help pay the debt of a town with more wealth. You can see why these discussions can be divisive.
Who would willingly want to enter into such relationship, unless there were some other unique benefits? It is for reasons like this that some 96 towns across Vermont are struggling to comply with Act 46. To be clear many towns have come together to form new workable districts. Others, separated by mountains, or simply without a natural flow between their citizens have struggled. They really never have been connected and to require them to come together now is asking for an awkward alliance.
We need to stop the divisiveness of this law and recognize a one size fits all strategy will not work. We need to strengthen opportunities for alternative governing structures that allow school districts to come together in different ways that may achieve savings or better educational opportunities for children, without giving up all of their local control.
I am not against saving money by partnering with others. I do worry that the closures of small schools that may result, done in the name of saving money, will really produce little savings. Tuition for the children moving to a new school will not come cheaply. The cost to transport children to another school in the district will be more dollars diverted from teaching. I would rather see more efforts spent on combining health care contracts to yield what might be a better return.
Legislators come together from across Vermont to Montpelier to do the work of the people. They sit side by side, shoulder to shoulder, not as Democrats or Republicans, not as Independents or Progressives. They come together united by their love for our little state. I hope they will band together to help change Act 46 to preserve our small schools and in so doing help preserve the Vermont Way.
Our small schools are the heartbeat of their community. They are the life blood that feeds the spirit of our towns. Community togetherness is a powerful thing. Without it we are little more than isolated inhabitants, wayward strangers disconnected and disenfranchised from each other. Yes, there is a cost to being small. There is an expense to losing our identity too. I look forward to debating this issue in the weeks ahead as many from small towns across Vermont stand to fight for the Vermont Way.