Editor’s note: This commentary is by John A. Castle, who is superintendent of the North Country Supervisory Union.
If Vermont were a school, it would be a small school. Challenged by limited resources, absent an economy of scale and perceived lacking equity of opportunity when compared to other “schools.” Some would consider Vermont isolated, provincial, defining us as “rural” in a disparaging way, and dependent on external resources.
It is often presented that small schools in Vermont have unrealistically small class sizes, are high spending and a drain on our economy. This is not always the case. In fact, many small schools spend below the state per pupil average. It is also presented that small schools have limited opportunities for students. Small schools provide learning opportunities that are sometimes different, but not necessarily lesser in value or quality. Often small schools can provide the kind of environment and learning opportunities that large schools cannot easily or cost effectively provide. Many small Vermont schools demonstrate evidence of exceptional opportunities and outcomes for students.
Approximately one third of Vermont lands are in the “Current Use” program. Vermonters’ belief in a working landscape goes hand in hand with a belief in sustainable communities. The third of Vermont schools receiving the small schools grant persist in the face of increasing pressures in the interests of public welfare. We need to embrace community-schools, with local governance, that are at the core of our sense of community, based on shared values, interdependence and reciprocity. Small schools grants are the “current use” in supporting sustainable communities. Research has shown that small community-schools can actually mitigate the impact of poverty on learning, yet we push for larger units in the name of efficiency.
Being on a bus for over an hour and the inability to stay for afterschool programs is not the kind of “equity of opportunity” we need for children. Without state construction aid to support major renovations or additions, how do schools incorporate substantial numbers from another community? We have actually lost ground in recent years when it comes to cost sharing with the absence of state aid for construction. Now we are taking a page out of the federal government’s playbook with financial inducements and penalties to promote compliance at a time when many school-communities actually need additional support to address the challenges of poverty. Consolidated governance will not mitigate poverty in rural Vermont.
We need to embrace community-schools, with local governance, that are at the core of our sense of community, based on shared values, interdependence and reciprocity.
Some small schools have closed in recent years. Others likely will in years to come. These difficult decisions should be made by the community, not a supervisory district through pressure from Montpelier, lured by false inducements. There are times that a community will close a small school due to a convergence of limited educational opportunity and increased cost. School-communities should not be pushed into these situations by bad public policy. If there is an outcry over property taxes, how can the Legislature provide financial incentives and tax breaks to promote governance consolidation? … only if you count on closing small schools!
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Vermonters are not happy with property taxes, but there is not a crisis. There is a need for correction, but current considerations in the Legislature are not the answer. We will slip down the slope away from a public education, with local involvement, toward government education. Our supervisory union model can operate efficiently to provide the right balance of “Freedom and Unity” with local district boards, balancing direct democracy and representative democracy. There is no proof there will be universal savings through governance consolidation and actually there is evidence that centralized bureaucracies tend to grow over time. Governance consolidation is a political agenda that reflects the interest of those with power while marginalizing others.
Vermonters hold a strong sense of identity and shared values, are truly interdependent and believe in reciprocity and remain incredibly resourceful — a strong sense of community. We must value our rural identify and ensure all school-communities are given an opportunity to succeed. If Vermonters value our sense of community, we should speak out against legislation that will diminish democracy, minimize social capital and restrict opportunities. We are fortunate to live in the small state of Vermont — with all its limits and blessings.
“And it is this love of liberty that today prompts Vermont to revolt against the approach toward that type of centralized government which history has so often proved undesirable.” — George Aiken