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Clark: To Merge Or Not To Merge

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Ninety school districts - about a quarter of Vermont’s communities - have proposed meeting Act 46’s goals through collaboration rather than formal merger.

In some, topography makes merger unworkable. In others, merging with differing debt levels would create inequitable burdens on the towns least able to pay. But all advocate for accessible, equitable rural education.

They’ve all responded within the law. All are convinced they’ll meet students’ needs as well, or better, by retaining community-level governance. They simply don’t accept a trade-off between children and community—they argue that one cannot possibly thrive without the other.

Vermonters have a healthy tradition, and cultural aptitude, for self-governance. And many surveys, heated public deliberations, and overwhelming votes on Act 46 make it clear that this passion isn’t going away anytime soon.

Nor should we wish it away.

For centuries, Vermonters’ commitment to community has been at the heart of how we make sense of the world. In fact, it’s this sense of connection and meaning, of personal efficacy and civic responsibility, we so earnestly want to instill in our high school graduates.

Sadly, new, top-down policies put this at risk.

The Agency of Education has already rejected many non-merger proposals, even overriding the result of substantial local votes. Now it will be up to the Board of Education to decide whether to uphold, amend, or reject the agency’s recommendations.

Dozens of duly elected school board members will soon make their cases before the board. And it’s expected that most of them will make it clear that they see forced merger as deeply damaging to the democratic process, their communities, rural schools, and to students themselves.

It’s also predicted that forced merger would have consequences - lawsuits, sure, but also bitterness that could well endure for generations.

So Vermont’s policy makers would be wise to take a fresh tack - embracing our rural communities for their strengths, and respecting their willingness to partner in framing solutions.

Citizens are more intelligent, more nuanced, and more engaged than we often give them credit for. State government should also be intelligent and nuanced, showing more respect than their current approach reflects.

The last thing we need is for policy makers to add to the powerlessness and anger felt by so many rural people across America. It’s not good for anyone - especially our kids.