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To Merge Or Not To Merge? Vermont School Districts Face Difficult Questions

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Taylor Dobbs
/
VPR News
Megs Keir, left, and Michael Marks both want what's best for children in their community, but they disagree on what that is.

Vermont lawmakers have been working for years to move the state’s schools toward more efficient operations. They’ve passed laws and enacted tax incentives in an effort to make school district mergers easier and more appealing for local communities.

But when the question makes it down to the community level, the issues at play are many and complicated.

“Change is necessary,” said Michael Marks, the chairman of the Chittenden East Voluntary Merger Committee, at the end of a recent school board meeting in Huntington. Huntington’s elementary school is one of six that could be merged with the Mount Mansfield union that currently schools students in grades five through 12.

“We’re in a different time today. Meeting students’ needs with the kind of educational challenges we have today is much more complicated than it was 50 years ago, and our residents have enormous tax burdens. We have an obligation to be as efficient as possible for them," he said.

"We're in a different time today. Meeting students' needs with the kind of educational challenges we have today is much more complicated than it was 50 years ago, and our residents have enormous tax burdens. We have an obligation to be as efficient as possible for them." - Michael Marks, chairman of the Chittenden East Voluntary Merger Committee

  The committee formed last year to look into the possibility of merging the six elementary school districts that feed into the Mount Mansfield Union school system with the Mansfield Union itself.

The result would mean that schools currently governed by 45 board members on seven school boards would instead be governed by a single 15-member board.

Marks says the merger is the right move to streamline school governance.

“For fifty years, we’ve been a community that has governed grades 5 through 12 in a single board,” he said. “And it’s something that’s proven and is very valuable.”

Opponents of the merger plan agree in the value of the grades 5 through 12 union, but they question the wisdom of putting the six elementary schools in the district.

“The idea of taking a 15 member school board, which we have now managing our middle and high schools, and tasking that same number of people to manage – instead of three buildings they’re going to be managing nine buildings. That’s nine roofs, that’s nine gym floors, that’s nine principals,” says Megs Keir.

Keir was the sole member of the merger committee opposed to the move. She questions the ability of one board to adequately oversee the younger students.

“They’re going to be managing not just grades 5 through 12, but they’re going to be adding Pre-K, K, 1, 2, 3, 4,” she says. “There’s so much developmental work that goes on in those early grades."

Critics are also worried the format of the vote is confusing and problematic. If a majority of voters in a majority of the union’s towns vote yes, those communities will be rolled into this new union district. Any towns that vote no will remain separate with some affiliation to the larger district. That plan is called a modified union, as opposed to a unified union.

Some in the community are worried this system doesn’t make sense and will only serve to confuse voters. They say voters should have a chance to vote for each type of union separately.

"If I could wave a wand and have it happen the way I want it to, we would vote this down and respond by saying let's have community forums where we really talk about the issues that we really want to improve on." - Megs Keir, merger opponent

  As complicated as it seems now, school districts have been consolidating in Vermont for centuries, from thousands of school boards in the 1700s to the union school movement in the 1950s. 

Steve Dale is the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. He says he hopes the six towns in Chittenden East do vote to merge their boards in November, but he’s quick to note that consolidation is not one-size-fits all.

“The way the law is structured, these are local decisions being made by local voters in local communities and guided by their local school boards and study committees,” Dale says.

But Keir and other critics of the Chittenden East merger say local is exactly what this plan lacks. State lawmakers encouraged consolidation, and an appointed merger committee drafted a plan – Keir says, too quickly.

“If I could wave a wand and have it happen the way I want it to, we would vote this down and respond by saying let’s have community forums where we really talk about the issues that we really want to improve on,” she says.

Keir’s probably not going to get her wand, but enough voters’ pens will give one side the magic number on election day.