Not about opportunity. Or money. Or the kids.

What the vote is about, pure and simple, is the elimination of local town school boards and folding all the area’s schools into a larger ‘mega-district’

PUTNEY — Recently, in describing the process that ultimately led to the formation of a Dover-Wardsboro combined school district, Gov. Phil Scott remarked: “[I]t's encouraging to see so many people here engaged on the issues and working together to find solutions. I think it demonstrates the close link between civic engagement and how we deliver education to many corners of our small state.”

Act 46 has indeed provided great opportunities for engagement for many people in different communities around the state to come together to solve problems of funding and taxation, lower enrollments, inequitable educational opportunities, and the challenges posed in providing quality education in the 21st century in a small state like ours.

The “civic engagement” mentioned by the governor, which has been so productive throughout much of the state (while being steadfastly resisted here in our own WSESU) holds promise for our ability to rise to those challenges.

The governor is correct. There is a close link between that engagement and how we educate our children.

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The WSESU Study Committee has put together a proposal for the towns of Brattleboro, Putney, Guilford, and Dummerston that, when put before the voters on Nov. 7, can and should be voted up or down based primarily upon its merits, rather than the flawed path followed in its creation.

Many of the possibilities for improvement identified by the committee sound terrific: better offerings throughout the supervisory union, more opportunities for kids, improved training for teachers, better central-office purchasing and bookkeeping structure, foreign language and technology instruction, after-school and summer offerings, and more can only mean that things will be better for the students of the district.

You may well wonder, however, what any of that has to do with an administrative merger that eliminates local school boards.

The answer, of course, is that it has nothing whatever to do with a merger.

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A friend mentioned to me an Act 46 Study Committee member's Facebook posting lamenting that there's not enough attention paid to the good possibilities in the proposal, like the opportunity for middle schoolers from Putney and Dummerston to attend Brattleboro Area Middle School, with its more diverse population and offerings. No doubt, a great idea, for some students and families at least. Some, of course, might need the environment in their local schools for a little longer.

Should families be able to choose, in consultation with their student's educators, based on the needs of their child? Sure.

However, the upcoming vote isn't about the worthiness of these possibilities - we all certainly agree that better opportunities and improved instruction for kids, and potential cost savings for taxpayers, are all good.

What the vote is about, pure and simple, is the elimination of local town school boards and folding all the area's schools into a larger “mega-district.” And that's all it is about.

It's not about more opportunity. It's not about saving money. It's not about caring for kids and education. All of the things mentioned in the preceding paragraphs - and more - can be well achieved without a merger.

As the study committee and central-office administration point out, we have already made significant progress toward many of these goals within our existing structure. Indeed, our supervisory union has long been a model of inter-school cooperation for the rest of the state.

As a parent whose children all went to Putney Central and were able to benefit from the close connection the community has with its school, I want other kids to have that same advantage.

We can have a structure within our supervisory union that provides both for greater opportunities as well as that close community connection that comes from a town's investment in its school.

* * *

Can we cooperate even more? Yes. Can we achieve cross-school and -town coordination and offerings and savings? Absolutely. Should we be looking at ways to improve educational opportunities for all of the children within the region? Definitely.

Do we need to have a single, merged district to do these things? No, we most certainly do not.

Many variables affect the quality of education and educational opportunities, but increasing the size of superintendency of school districts is not a significant one. While it might be easier for administrators to have a merged district, it is putting the cart before the horse to merge for the convenience of the Central Office. The administration exists to serve the needs of the towns and their schools and children, not the other way around.

There is a lot of talent in the WSESU, and the administrative professionals as well as school boards and citizens can certainly figure out how to achieve greater administrative efficiencies and how to manage the accounting involved in cooperation and coordination within a union school district that still keeps its local schools.

There are many ways for us to achieve the benefits of greater cooperation both within the district and with other districts without losing the close valuable connection that our towns have with their schools. Districts around the state are engaged in discussions about how to best achieve these benefits in ways that best suit their communities.

Many excellent, vibrant possibilities have emerged from these discussions and are taking form as proposals to put before the state for approval. As the governor points out, how communities have these discussions - and the engagement of the citizens in the process - is tightly linked to the education we offer our young people.

Let's meet the challenges before us, recognizing that as we respect our different towns, their strengths, and their children's needs, and as we encourage rather than stifle engagement (civic and educational), we create a stronger and better educational environment for all.

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