Education

Rumble Strip Vermont: Our School

In this edition of the podcast Rumble Strip Vermont, conversationalist Erica Heilman explores some of the fallout that some rural communities fear from a law the Legislature passed last year, Act 46. The purpose of the law was to try to control education costs in an era of shrinking student population by consolidating school districts and possibly, down the road, closing schools, particularly in rural communities.

Erica Heilman. VTDigger Photo by Mark Johnson
Erica Heilman. VTDigger Photo by Mark Johnson

Erica interviews the following people in the piece:

Lincoln Petell, the chairman of the school board in Holland.

Susan Clark, a facilitator, educator, and the co-author of “Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home.” She is also Town Moderator in Middlesex.

John Castle, the superintendent of the North Country Supervisory Union.

For more information, to hear other episodes or to make a donation, go to Rumble Strip Vermont.

Click below to hear the podcast.

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  • George Cross

    Excellent conversation! For me the fundamental question that Act 46 has ignored is the question asked early in this conversation, “What do small schools mean to small communities?”

    In the rush to “equalize educational opportunity”, the politicians forgot to peel back the whole orange. They tore out a couple of sections and said, “Aha, here’s the problem and here is how we solve it.” They neglected all the sections which deal with the whole community, not just the schools. They never looked at the sections which show the creativity in small schools that ensures opportunity in so many different ways. They tossed out the sections that provide the research data showing the performance levels of students in small schools. In the rush to look like New Jersey, the politicians only looked at the sections of the orange that promoted that Scarlet Knight image. Even in New Jersey the Scarlet Knight is under attack for its lack of diversity.

    Let’s hope when the legislature returns in January that they return to the Act 46 orange and this time remove the whole peel so they can view it all before “tweaking” the law.

  • Scott Thompson

    This is a rich, articulate, and deeply interesting podcast — an act of bearing witness that goes way beyond the 3 minutes per person that the Legislature can afford to grant at its big hearings. It also exhibits in action the tremendous will and capacity for democracy and self-government at the local level that the people of our state still have. It left me with the powerful impression that such a will and capacity may be our greatest treasure.

    Whatever one’s views on Act 46, the issues considered here are well worth listening to and thinking about.

    I sat spellbound through all 23 minutes of this piece. My heartfelt thanks to all involved.

  • This piece is indeed well done and has many thoughtful comments in it. I do, however, think the author presents a rather false interpretation of the recent statewide conversations regarding consolidation, and I do believe that the districts of the North Country SU have some viable paths forward under Act 46.

    The current consolidation momentum began building in the early 2000’s and has seen legislative implementation in 2010 (Act 153), 2012 (Act 156) and now 2015 (Act 46). No, Act 46 did not just pop up without notice in the midst of a school cost/property tax burden discussion that also did not just pop up this year. And by the way – at no time has the discussion been solely or even primarily about money: money has only recently become a driving force in the school governance consolidation discussion.

    The districts in the North Country SU have some very difficult discussions to engage in, and if they are willing to make some changes to their town schools (where those exist) with all the positives can certainly remain. However trade offs will have to be made for this to happen primarily in the realm of tuition/school configuration, and while Act 46 does not require that type of tough decision making a positive future for the communities and the kids involved do.

    The status quo is crumbling before our eyes, and if we try to hold on to it then we are doomed to being nothing more then reactions to a dire crisis.

  • Chaunce Benedict

    The legislature should put a FREEZE on ALL mergers etc. and, as George Cross suggests, peel back and consider the orange, big-time.

    Act 46 if left in place as is, will wreak havoc on Vermont schools, students and families. It
    provides an over-simplified, crude 1960s-style organizational solution to the complex set of 21st century educational and economic circumstances in which Vermont finds itself in 2015. It is at best, a half-baked (and in regard to the funding caps, knee-jerked) response to the need to build a sustainable, viable system of education and support for our children, families and communities.

    Hoping Vermont Digger will dig into the fabric of the effects that mergers and consolidation have had (other states) and will have on the fabric of Vermont community life.

    Also hoping to see some really careful investigative reporting as to the numbers being touted around Vermont – in Franklin County, for example – as to the utterly astronomical savings that will be purportedly attained by merger / unification.

  • david usher

    Social capital undergirds community as we understand it in Vermont. However, the sustainability of social capital has a real dollar cost which property tax payers are increasingly unwilling to pay.

    Social capital thrives when people can support themselves economically. But when property taxes outpace incomes and business vitality stagnates, social capital inevitably erodes.

    Education cost increases in the face of years of declining enrollment is not an acceptable outcome. Act 46 may not be the best answer, but the Legislature has the final responsibility and authority to bring costs under control. Heretofore they have failed.

  • Daniel Redondo

    Thank you for a terrific piece of audio journalism, Erica.

    The concerns raised about local control and local governance are also felt here in Orwell, where the rush to consolidation is underway. Orwell stands to hand control of its school to an 18 member school board comprised as follows:

    Benson 2
    Castleton 7
    Fair Haven 5
    Hubbardton 1
    Orwell 2
    West Haven 1

    The draft Articles of Agreement (AoA) provides the following language about school closings:

    “The Union School District shall not close any schools within its boundaries during the first four years it is fully operational and providing educational services. Thereafter, an affirmative vote of three-quarters of the full membership of the Board of Directors shall be required to approve the closure of a school. Prior to holding a vote on whether to close a school, the Board shall hold at least three (3) public hearings regarding the proposed school closure. At least one (1) of the public hearings shall be held in the community in which the school is located. If after conducting public hearings, the Board of Directors intends to vote on whether to close a school, it shall give public notice of its intent to hold a vote on whether to close a school, stating the reason for the closure, at least ten days prior to the vote.”

    Currently, Orwell is a solid school, with a low budget and high school scores, the kind of school that should be held up as a model for successful small town local governance. But it’s also the furthest school away from the population center of the proposed new district, Fair Haven and Castleton. You can see that those two towns comprise 12 of the 18 board members. If the board wants to close Orwell (or Benson, for that matter) after 4 years, the Fair Haven/Castleton members will need only two more board members to reach the 3/4 majority described in the AoA. With only two board members for Orwell and Benson each, neither town would have the numbers to prevent their school from closing in the future.

  • Kathleen Scott

    It is very heartening to hear other people voicing the same concerns we feel here in Windham. The State of Vermont has been working for years to get us involved in consolidation with, I believe, a longer term goal to close our small school. We are constantly being told about “efficiency of scale”, more and better opportunities for the children, shared services, etc. No one, however, responds to our concerns about our little ones being bused off the mountain. No one at the State level equates loss of the school to the loss of the Town, yet we will have nothing central in our community without the school. We have no store, no post office; no village green or center. Our population is heavily weighted on the side of retirees. If the school closes, who will want to settle here? We will become a retirement community on a mountain until the last of us fade away. That is not my idea of a community.

    • With respect, two thoughts:
      1. Just as “too big” schools are not optimal for most students, “too small” schools can also shortchange students. There is a Goldilocks size, and in the 21st century, 16 students in K-6 (info from windhamschool.org) may not be it.
      2. I do have sympathy for the community center aspect, but really, you could almost not choose a more expensive way to have a community center than to operate a public school. Start a Grange, add more open hours and a social aspect to your library, be involved in your church(es) . . . . there are lots of ways to “do” community that don’t come with the negatives of cost and opportunity that accompany operating a very small public school as community center.

  • Jody Normaneau

    A very thought provoking audio editorial. The people involved hit upon so many of the issues of small towns and their heart which is their schools. Please forward this piece to your representatives in your school and anyone else you feel should hear this. We all need to stand up against this consolidation legislation. May our legislature gain a heart.

  • Peter Conlon

    Indeed a thoughtful piece. Too bad it didn’t look closely enough at the two biggest factors driving the debate: a significant decline in the number of school children in Vermont, especially rural VT, and the one issue that unites all Vermonters – high taxes.

    The fact is, as the number of students in Vermont has plummeted, school costs have stayed the same or increased. School taxes have increased locally and statewide. This means school systems must have new conversations, not cling to the past. A small rural school with declining enrollment cannot solve this problem alone. It needs its neighbors to come up with new, creative approaches that can preserve the best of what it has while being responsible to the residents who pay for it, and the kids who attend it.

    With or without Act 46, schools will close, or at least will have very hard conversations about their futures – potentially death by a thousand cuts. The Legislature has been clear that local residents are going to have to pay more of the true cost of operating small schools.
    Clinging to town borders and local boards significantly impedes creative solutions, and will likely hasten a financially shaky school’s demise. Just getting five board members from one town to meet with five members from another is a herculean effort, to say nothing of holding sustained conversations about addressing high cost, declining enrollment and maintaining quality. Unified governance means looking at an entire school system, all of its kids, and what works best for them and for the taxpayers.
    Disclaimer: While I am a school board member, this opinion is my own.

    • Daniel Redondo

      Peter, do you think one school board covering 5 or 6 different schools will be able to effectively operate schools? Also, do you think that local school boards have been hindering efforts to improve educational options?

      • Peter Conlon

        Daniel, I do believe a single board can “govern” multiple schools. I don’t really think of boards as operating or managing schools, but rather setting policy, goals, budgets and dealing with other legislatively mandated duties. Since groups of small schools generally feed big schools, it is important that all the kids in a system get an equal, excellent education before entering their union school. That is best accomplished with a unified vision, goals and governance.
        I don’t think boards themselves hinder progress. It is the structure and adherence to town borders. It is hard to get out of a “foxhole” mentality, but that is going to have to change as population declines. Cutting budgets little by little at too many schools due to that decline is the quickest way reduce educational opportunities.

        • Daniel Redondo

          I think we’re on the same page about what boards do. And yes, the elementary and secondary ed schools feed into one high school, so it’s important that those schools have the same quality education at the same standards so they arrive at high school at the same level. That’s why the supervisory unions such as ARSU employ a curriculum coordinator, and why schools across the state have implemented the Common Core standards.

          So with these steps already underway, why then is there a need to dissolve local school boards? If we agree that local boards are not hindering progress, there must be another reason for wanting to eliminate local control.

  • Robt Bernstein

    No change to school governance should be desired without a knowledge of the full consequence of the change; this plan is heartless in that it will lead to school closings and thus towns without hearts and will not improve education as towns without hearts are not places where students can thrive.

  • Robt Bernstein

    Worth listening to several times, thanks.

  • Let me say up front that I’m a school board member (Ripton; also ACSU board), and these are my own opinions.

    This episode powerful document for this historical moment, this episode is a vital contribution to the debate. Because the implementation of Act 46 is indeed a debate, depute is being settled law.

    I appreciate how Heilman captures the voices of those in Vermont who value local control and small schools. They can shape how this consolidation process plays out.

    I fear that, statements to the contrary, the end goal of this process will be closing schools and firing teachers. That is the only way to significantly cut costs; board consolidation will only reduce expenses a fraction, in comparison.