I ’ve been reading about the “Vicious Act” of 1892. That’s the law Vermont legislators passed a century ago mandating consolidation of all school districts within a town to a single district. The law was not popular.
Vermont is now dealing with a similar law that some feel is the Vicious Act of 2015 — Act 46, the school governance law that mandates further consolidation of town school districts. The legislature may have felt that consolidation makes sense. And the impact for some towns may very well be benign. But for others, it is not.
The way the law has worked to date is to transfer significant resources, through incentives, to merged districts. Many of the merged districts are in the more urban areas of the state. Rural areas help to pay for these incentives through Education Fund dollars.
Additionally, special grants to small schools that have already agreed to merge will continue — “in perpetuity” in most cases, the law says. Those small schools that haven’t merged may see their grants disappear. It’s a perfect example of the lure of the carrot and the pain of the stick. Most of the districts about to feel the pain of the stick are districts in rural areas. My town, Worcester, is one.
The resource drain and a strong attachment to local schools based on community values have led some rural districts to consider “flipping” their public schools to private schools.
It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that Act 46 has turned into an assault on some rural areas of the state, and, ironically, to an assault on public education itself.
The state Board of Education has been hosting “listening sessions” around the state to hear appeals from towns that don’t want to be forced into mergers. Two sessions have already been held; a third will be Sept. 19 in Chester. By Nov. 30, the state board must issue orders on what happens next — forced mergers for the 92 districts not currently in compliance with the law or accommodations allowing other governance structures.
I’ve been to the first two sessions. Each started with success stories from districts that have already merged. These examples are great. They are happy stories with happy endings. School administrators report some efficiencies, and teachers and community members report new opportunities offered children.
But then came the appeals from the non-merger towns, unhappy with the state telling them it knows better than local people what’s best for their children. The fear, anger, and pain of those testifying — some of whom have served as school board members for 20 years, or worked in the trenches as principals or superintendents — is palpable. I watched the hands of one witness shake so badly he could barely read the remarks he had prepared. I listened as another raised three fingers of one hand in the air to illustrate how residents in his town greet each other as a reminder they’ve voted three times against merger. Several witnesses have been close to tears when they try to explain to the strangers before them what their local school means to the town and its children. These witnesses are not bad people out to hurt kids or waste taxpayer dollars. They’re our neighbors.
The state Board of Education has worked to maximize Act 46’s benefits; now it must work to minimize its potential harms. Acknowledge that one size may not fit all. Work with the districts seeking alternative governance plans to achieve the goals of Act 46 — improving learning opportunities for kids and saving money for taxpayers. Hold the districts to these goals. Require them to equal or exceed the savings and the new learning opportunities that merger districts achieve. My guess is the non-merger districts will themselves come around to merger if locally based reform efforts don’t work. If not, a merger mandate will seem infinitely more justified than it seems now.
This is a plea we not give up on local communities, on local schools, on local school board members. Don’t force them into situations where they consider privatizing education. Work with them to make public schools better for kids and save money for taxpayers.
Allen Gilbert was chair of the Worcester School Board in 1995 when it joined the Brigham school funding lawsuit. He also chaired his supervisory union’s board, served as president of the Vermont School Boards Association, and is serving again on the Worcester board. He retired in 2016 as executive director of the ACLU-VT.