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Scott: Act 46 merger could offer ‘civic engagement’

Governor cautions against use of divisive rhetoric in policy discussions

WARDSBORO—As he presided over the creation of Windham County’s newest school district, Gov. Phil Scott saw an opportunity for a lesson in “civic engagement.”

Speaking on Sept. 22 to an audience of students, teachers, and parents from the merging Dover and Wardsboro school districts, Scott decried the “political rhetoric and engagement we see on the national level today.”

He also called for less contentious policy discussions in Vermont — with an implicit acknowledgement that Act 46, the state law that led to the Dover/Wardsboro merger, has caused its fair share of acrimony.

“We should all be careful not to allow the rhetoric around issues like budget choices or tax policies or other issues — or combining schools — to degrade and include words like ‘assault’ or ‘attack,’” Scott said.

“When a legitimate policy debate is characterized in these terms — the terms of violence and war, or us versus them — that’s when the divide grows ever wider, and the opportunity for compromise is diminished,” he added. “It just comes down to winners and losers, which just raises the stakes for everyone involved.”

High stakes

The stakes are high for Vermont’s schools under Act 46, the controversial 2015 state law that pushes for larger, consolidated school districts statewide in an effort to control costs and equalize educational opportunities.

Those districts that don’t merge or receive state approval for some other, alternative governance plan face the prospect of having their boundaries and affiliations determined by the Vermont Board of Education.

As has been the case in many districts, Dover and Wardsboro residents have followed a long and complicated path to Act 46 compliance.

The two districts, which each operate elementary schools and offer school choice after grade 6, initially were part of a consolidation plan with Marlboro, which operates an elementary and middle school.

That three-district plan was rejected on Town Meeting Day this year by both Marlboro and Wardsboro. But Wardsboro residents subsequently revoted, this time approving the plan and setting into motion a two-district merger with Dover.

Planning for what has been dubbed the River Valleys Unified School District already was under way when Dover officials discovered that an error in their March vote warning would require an Act 46 revote. A change in Dover’s outcome would have jeopardized the new district, but Dover residents reiterated their approval in July.

Formation of the River Valleys district also was dependent on formation of the neighboring West River Modified Union Education District, a merger approved earlier this year by four current Leland & Gray district towns.

All of that led to the Sept. 22 meeting at Wardsboro Town Hall, where the governor was invited to participate in the formal creation of the River Valleys district.

Given that the combined pre-K-through-6 enrollment in Dover and Wardsboro is a little over 150, some took Scott’s appearance as a good sign. “I think that says a lot for [state officials’] commitment to our smaller school districts in the more rural parts of Vermont,” said Rich Werner, who chairs Dover School Board and also led the Act 46 study committee that spurred the merger.

Election of officers

The meeting included election of officers and affirmation of a six-member board: Werner, Laura Sibilia, and Kerry MacDonald-Cady represent Dover, while Dwight Boerem, Rick Thorpe, and Barry Pearson represent Wardsboro.

Though the merged district doesn’t start educational operations until July 1, 2019, officials are beginning their planning work now.

“They’ve got a lot of work on their hands,” Bill Anton, Windham Central Supervisory Union superintendent, said of the six board members. “They’re going to be the leaders for the next two years before this district comes into play.”

Sibilia also is a state representative: The second-term independent serves both towns involved in the school merger, among others. In an interview, she said she doesn’t believe Act 46 “in itself is going to solve all the problems districts are facing.”

But as a member of the River Valleys board, she’ll be tasked with helping to make her local Act 46 merger work.

“I do see opportunities,” Sibilia said. “I see the benefits of collaborating.”

The same applies to Boerem, who represented Wardsboro in the Act 46 planning process.

Boerem said “time will tell” if Wardsboro and Dover will experience the law’s purported benefits. But he sees potential for boosting enrollment and educational opportunities in two districts that may be more similar than they look on paper.

Through Act 46 deliberations, “we found that, although there are differences, they have more in common than they have differences,” Boerem said.

One commonality between the two districts is an opportunity for hands-on civics training. That was highlighted during the governor’s visit, as Dover students told Scott about their work to change the town’s official seal and Wardsboro students recounted a successful drive to have the Gilfeather turnip named Vermont’s state vegetable.

In his remarks, Scott linked the students’ efforts and the work of the two towns’ Act 46 planners to his broader theme of civic engagement.

The challenge of preparing students for the future “is compounded amidst the significant demographic and economic challenges we face as a state,” Scott said.

“It’s not going to be easy, but it’s encouraging to see so many people here engaged on the issues and working together to find solutions,” he said. “I think it demonstrates the close link between civic engagement and how we deliver education to many corners of our small state.”

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Tamara Stenn
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Tamara Stenn (Brattleboro, Vermont, US) says...

Thanks for writing this Elayne. I was thinking the same thing myself. The silence we received from the hospital is quite deafening. Unfortunately we\'ve had to continue working with the hospital as other (minor) heath issues come up.

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Judith Skillman
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Judith Skillman (Newcastle, US) says...

Excellent and informative writing about the media and about the state of our nation. We must support the press speak truth to power, now more than ever before.

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Ruby Bode
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Ruby Bode (Westminster, Vermont, US) says...

We are also obliged to criticize the press when they merely echo the lies of the powerful. In this case, much of the press has taken a side, not just against the policies of the President, but against the election itself on behalf of the parties of war and Wall St. Just as the US has in the past agitated in other countries for coups against democratic outcomes they don’t like, much of the press, including this editorial, is now agitating for a coup here at home.

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Peter Ford
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Peter Ford (Dallas) says...

Nailed it - Thank you.

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TB Smith
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TB Smith (Ba, Oklahoma, US) says...

The divisiveness brought on by this shamefully poor excuse for a president has been once again, borne out by this article, and the responses to it .. his most devoted followers are the most gullible and easily swayed sheeple since the \"Kool-Aid party in Jonestown\" ... those who stand up the most fervently to this dictator \"wanabe\", will , inthe end, see him and the fellow purveyors of his garbage rhetoric like FOX News, Alex Jones, Breitbart, etc., crumble and be dumped like stale crackers (pardon the pun) .. we must impeach this tyrant before too much damage is done, either from within or outside our borders.

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Ruby Bode
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Ruby Bode (Westminster, Vermont, US) says...

So it’s OK that access to outlets that simply recognize Trump as President is indeed being shut down? But isn’t that exactly what this editorial is against? Should outlets that cheered on Obama’s wars and love of Wall St have likewise been shut down? Only John Birch Society–inspired screeds against Trump indicate the “legitimate” press?

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Ruby Bode
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Ruby Bode (Westminster, Vermont, US) says...

TB Smith’s comment in apparent support of the us-vs-them tone of this editorial illustrates why so many people distrust so much of the press (although, again, it appears to be only pro-Trump and anti-imperialist outlets that are actually being shut down): They are promulgating hysterical claims about fascism, Russians, and “crackers” not in the interest of the people, but wholly on behalf of the neoliberal/neoconservative program of Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama to deny Trump the Presidency and even remove him from office – not democratically, but by coup if necessary. That makes the press rather anti-democratic and, indeed, against the people.

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Amelia Stone
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Amelia Stone (E Dummerston, Vermont, US) says...

Kudos to the Boston Globe for encouraging newspapers across the country to remind us all of the value of a free press, and to the Commons for hearing that call. The NYTimes article, A Free Press Needs You, concludes with the following: \"If you haven’t already, please subscribe to your local papers. Praise them when you think they’ve done a good job and criticize them when you think they could do better. We’re all in this together.\" Today I plan to subscribe.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #429 (Wednesday, October 11, 2017). This story appeared on page A1.

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