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.”
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.”