Voters in Wardsboro will once again be asked to weigh in on a proposed school district consolidation plan. The vote is set for Monday, May 1, and is a reconsideration of the the Town Meeting vote on the merger that was held in March.
On Town Meeting day, the proposal was defeated 79-62. Since that time, a petition was submitted for a reconsideration of the failed vote, and the Wardsboro School Board has come out strongly in favor of the proposal.
I support the re-vote and the board’s position. I would encourage voters in Wardsboro to support them as well, and vote yes on Monday.
Many of you may know that I was a member of the Wardsboro-Marlboro-Dover Act 46 study committee.
I also know that many of you in Wardsboro reading this are about to throw your paper or laptop across the room and scream “The heck with you, Capitani, you don’t live in Wardsboro! You’re not one of us, it’s none of your business! You’re just trying to influence the outcome of the vote!”
Yes, I am.
And here’s why: Wardsboro won’t get a better agreement than this one.
I know there are concerns about the warning and the articles of agreement, and how a school could be closed. There are folks in Wardsboro who have legitimate issues. I understand them. Whether it’s fear of the unknown, fear of losing control, fear of losing the school, personal gain, or any other of a multitude of reasons, I don’t blame anyone for not supporting this.
But it’s not going away.
I’m not a big fan of Act 46. The editorial department here at The Deerfield Valley News has written numerous articles and editorials about how Act 46 would radically change the way Vermont schools operate. We’ve been reporting and running letters and opinion columns about Act 46 for more than two years.
Sometimes I wonder if anyone ever reads them. Because here we are, two years down the road, and people are still saying they don’t support Act 46 and by voting no believe they’re voting against it.
I get it, I don’t support Act 46 either. I think it and other short sighted policies are hastening the demise of the rural towns in Vermont, the very part of Vermont most say give the state its character. I have heard arguments against Act 46 and against the state trying to force consolidation on to local communities. I’ve made those same arguments many times over, in print, on the phone and via email with legislators, and sitting in a legislative hearing giving testimony.
And they passed the law anyway.
So all that railing against Act 46 does now is hurt local communities. It won’t make the law go away. It’s here, like it or not.
After having spent the better part of the past year working within the Act 46 process, I can say with certainty that I still don’t like it, but it’s the law. Also, from working within the inside, I can see even more clearly that the momentum in Vermont will not swing away from district consolidation. Maybe I’m brainwashed by it all, but that’s the conclusion I’ve come to.
The other conclusion I’ve come to is that if folks in Wardsboro really want to save their school this is the best deal they’re going to get.
Why do I say that? Because I know how much time and effort it has taken to craft the articles of agreement. If this is voted down Monday, and if Dover and Wardsboro have to start over again, there will not be the nine months we had to craft the current agreement, or the 18 months before that to study how best to approach Act 46. At best, if the Legislature passes S.122, the Act 46 adjustment bill currently working through the House of Representatives, there will be five months to develop a new plan, present it to the state, gain approval, have a vote, and leave enough time for a possible reconsideration. That isn’t much time, there would be quite a bit to be done, and I don’t see where it will be much different than what is there now.
I would hate to see the clock run out with no agreement, no state aid, and no say over where Dover and Wardsboro end up. Ultimately, the state holds all the cards, and in less than two years the Agency of Education will issue a “final plan” that will place any remaining districts that haven’t merged voluntarily into a bigger district of the state’s choosing.
If that sounds ominous, it is.
The reality is, the effort has been done. Are the current Articles of Agreement perfect? Of course not. But one thing I found while working on the study committee is that the folks from Wardsboro, Dover, and Marlboro cared about the same things: to do what’s best for our schools and the voters, and be able to meet the requirements of Act 46, like them or not. That’s a good start to a working relationship in an expanded school district.
There were some folks at Monday’s information meeting who feared Wardsboro would be giving up control of its school to a board that could shut it down on a whim, or without input from the voters.
That’s just not true. There is language in the agreement that binds all the towns to a vote before any school closure, and legal opinion that supports the agreement. I can also tell you that the sentiment from the committee was to try to do everything we could to keep every school open.
The real issue is demographics. Unless folks in Wardsboro can turn around the declining population trends of the past 20 years, it and other small towns will continue to be at risk of losing not just their schools, but perhaps their entire community.
At least if Dover and Wardsboro are working together, we might have a fighting chance of saving both schools. Alone, I don’t think so.
Whatever happens on Monday, I’ll respect the outcome of the vote. If it’s no, I’ll be disappointed. Not so much for all the effort the committee put in, but for the missed opportunity. Vote yes, and Wardsboro and Dover can move away from the uncertainty of trying to meet the mandates of Act 46 and toward building a future together.