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An Act 46 merger is not inevitable

PUTNEY — From the outset of hearing about Act 46 here in Putney, there has been a sense I and many other townspeople I have spoken with have had of its “inevitability,” as a de facto change that has come down from our governor and state legislators.

This is not the case - especially after the Legislature heard from many citizens throughout the state and passed Act 49, which modified and changed some of the requirements of Act 46.

It is really no accident that the cause of this feeling has been characterized by many as the biggest educational change to our public-school system in Vermont in more than 100 years. The reason it was experienced with benign neglect and resignation is not some odd accident but directly due to three distinct factors:

1. The language crafted into the law makes it seem as though a town's citizens do not have ultimate say in what happens to their town schools; rather, that ultimately it is up to the state and its Agency of Education.

2. The fact that the Act 46 Study Committee was tasked with only one thing to “study” - how to implement a merger. Therefore, discussion of alternatives to a merger was dismissed as not relevant to the committee's mission.

3. Add to this the fact that the merger was presented as very financially rewarding, and it then becomes clear why for many it was considered a done deal.

However, for many, many communities around the state, Act 46 was not and is not a done deal. This top-down, one- size-fits-all approach to education reform was not accepted by many communities. In fact, it was clear early on to one of our supervisory-union towns (Vernon) that this legislation was not compatible with how they want to run their school and so they asked to leave the union.

If the remaining towns do vote this merger down, it will not be as though Windham Southeast Supervisory Union is some odd aberration in the state. About one quarter of the supervisory unions around the state are not merging and are working on an Alternative Governance Structure to meet the requirements of the law.

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One of the factors that has caused many to see this legislation as inevitable has been the promised financial benefits of voting for a merger and the clear threat by the state that certain funds could be withheld if a merger did not pass.

I don't know about you, but when I hear that if I vote a certain way it will be rewarded financially (through tax and other incentives) - and the sooner the vote in favor of a merger, the more money a town is eligible for - my suspicions get raised that something is not quite right with that equation. (If something is good for me or my town, it should be able to stand on its own merits.)

Well, it turns out that the United States Department of Justice also had some concerns about that as well - enough concerns that in June, when a criminal complaint was lodged with the DOJ regarding Act 46 - the complaint was accepted by the Civil Rights Division of the department!

The complainants argue that Act 46's many incentives and penalties intended to push school mergers may violate federal law. Specifically, the complaint alleges that the wording of Act 46 violates the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. If these allegations had on their face clearly no merit, the case would not have been accepted.

This was not a complaint filed by some fringe interest group from out of state but rather by a former chairman of the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union, Jay Denault, acting on behalf of a statewide group of school-board members. In fact, many of the people I meet who are against a merger are also people who have devoted their careers to education.

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I can see some worthwhile intentions behind Act 46, but I also see other ways to get there. One thing that often gets missed in discussions about education reform is that it is possible - and often likely (as opposed to what is true in mathematics - to have two right answers.

In other words, we have people who are pro-merger saying that it is of great value for sixth-, seventh-, and eighth- graders in smaller towns to have the ability to access the larger population of middle schoolers, and the greater opportunities for programs that serve them available at Brattleboro Area Middle School.

Yes. This is true. For some kids. However, equally true and legitimate is that the smaller, more nurturing environment provided by a school in a student's own town is of tremendous value for other children.

For one side to claim that they have a monopoly on the truth of what is good for kids misses the essential point of human beings, which is that we are unique. Therefore, to make it more likely that a merged “super board” with a majority of representatives from Brattleboro will see it as fiscally prudent to close the middle school in Dummerston, Guilford, or Putney is not a chance I want to take.

We can achieve many of the goals of Act 46 in more sensible ways that do not forfeit local control of our schools or lock us into an arrangement we cannot change. This is what a merger would do.

By the way, this is exactly what happened when the Materials Recycling Facility was closed in Brattleboro by a board that was comprised of a majority of Brattleboro representatives. Had the other towns had equal participation, it would not have closed.

There are better options.

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