Editor’s note: This commentary is by Randall Szott, a writer, educator and chef who lives in Barnard with his wife Pamela and an 11-year-old son.
Yesterday, for town meeting, it was gloomy, gray and wet. Today, the sun is shining on our town hall and our school, Barnard Academy. Our residents cast a strong no vote (almost 60 percent) against merging under the Act 46 proposal on our ballots.
I am proud that our town resisted the pressure from the Vermont Legislature, the Agency of Education, the Windsor Central Supervisory Union, our Act 46 Study Committee, and even our local school board, but we still face an uncertain future for our school. The plan was inherently unfair, using our successful school as a source for savings for the other schools in the plan.
Our town has the second highest number of elementary pupils but we were slated for cuts. Our school has the second lowest per pupil spending in the supervisory union, but we were slated for cuts. Our school has the second highest student to staff ratios, but we were slated for cuts. Our town has the lowest board-related expenses in the supervisory union, but we were slated for cuts. We have already made the tough choices to run a lean and efficient school, but we were slated for cuts.
It should be clear why our town rejected the proposed merger. And it should be clear that Barnard is resilient and brave in the face of difficulty.
We need the proponents of Act 46 to live up to their promise that it was not intended to be a one-size-fits-all solution to the very real problems facing our state.
However, the pressure to make changes remains. So far the Legislature and the Agency of Education have appeared entirely unsympathetic in action (not rhetoric) to the plight of communities like ours. Act 46 specifically states, “It is not the State’s intent to close its small schools …” which may be true, but they appear to be comfortable with letting larger towns and their allies close the small schools of their neighbors. Our town is deeply committed to the goals of Act 46 — we value educational equity, transparency, operational efficiency, quality education and fiscal value — we have demonstrated that by the way Barnard Academy has been run throughout its history. We value other things as well — fairness, democratic control, and shared sacrifice. Unfortunately, with the plan we were presented, the two sets of values were in conflict.
As I write this the clouds and rain have returned. I am thinking of spring with all of its inherent potential. I want to believe that we have survived winter, but we need help. We need the proponents of Act 46 to live up to their promise that it was not intended to be a one-size-fits-all solution to the very real problems facing our state. We need legislators to take heed of the 90-plus towns that have not found a way forward under the current rules. We need people to see that our school and others like it are not inefficient, but the drivers of most of the good things about Vermont — small scale, civic minded, efficient, caring and strong institutions. Spring should be coming for our community, but will we be buried by a blizzard of indifference before it arrives?