Editor’s Note: This piece includes reporting by Townes Degroot, Max Fair, Patrick Cioffi, Ania Kehne.
One measure of intensity around the Act 46 debate was an exchange between two men at a WCSU district organizational meeting, which resulted in one calling the other a Nazi.
Act 46 is an issue that has left our community charged and polarized. What is causing such an intense reaction?
Act 46 was designed to benefit Vermont students by giving them more opportunities and options in their education, as well as saving money and more effectively managing school costs. According to the Act 46 draft bill, Vermont’s kindergarten through 12th-grade student population has declined from 103,000 in 1997 to 78,300 in 2015.
While enrollment may be declining, the need for emotional support and nutrition benefits, such as free or reduced lunch, has increased. Superintendent Bill Kimball stated: “Schools are being expected to do more with less.”
There are three basic issues with Act 46, which have contributed to the taxpayer pushback.
Debt sharing poses a large financial threat to many residents of Washington Central Supervisory Union. Recently, both East Montpelier Elementary School and Rumney Elementary School have undergone major renovations, with Berlin undergoing more minor renovations. With the passage of Act 46, Calais and Worcester would have to absorb part of this debt. This would likely result in raised taxes, with the residents of those towns paying bills for something that didn’t even benefit their town. Board member Adrienne Magida stated that: “many people from those towns (Calais and Worcester) have been coming to the board meetings to complain about taxes potentially being raised.”
State vs Local Control
A loss of local control is another area of concern for Vermont residents. The consolidated board of the new district would initially have two members from each town, for a total of ten members. This would result in a significant loss of local democracy.
Currently, each town has a school board and is able to make their own specific decisions regarding their town’s school. These boards are being dissolved under the Act 46 legislation, and residents are upset about their lack of control.
Susanna Culver is the current chair of the Calais school board. “Vermonters like to get their hands dirty,” she said. “They like to be involved. They like to have a voice at the table.”
Some Vermont school boards have already merged; one of those being Leland and Gray Union High School in Townshend, Vermont. Leland and Gray school board member Emily Long highlights a benefit of their merger: “Merging allows us to have broader conversations, share our resources, make decisions that are really student focused to try to expand those opportunities for kids.”
Another issue under Act 46 is changing town identities. Vermont towns used to be far more connected and self-sufficient. Yet as the economy has expanded and technology has advanced, Vermonters have become increasingly less connected. The issue of Act 46 has polarized small communities in our state and pushed people even farther apart. Towns are losing their sense of individuality as boards and budgets consolidate.
“Act 46 performed that function of bringing us closer together.” School board member Scott Thompson said. “You know, kind of the way a shipwreck brings the survivors closer together”. This has left Vermont residents scrambling for the sense of self that has steadily decreased over time.
So what’s at stake? Control is being moved farther away from the people. Lawmakers, many of who currently don’t have children in the Vermont school system, are making decisions that do not directly impact them. Meanwhile, students who are actually living these changes have very little say in the course of their education.
Regardless of the specifics of Act 46, the issue poses a major question: who should hold the power? Those farther away from the problem, but with more qualifications to handle it, or those who are at the epicenter of the problem but lack experience?
“It seems like this conversation that is political – kind of takes over our board which is a shame.” Calais elementary school principal Cat Fair said.
“In the last three years, my board meetings have been something I enjoyed because we talked about kids, education, good teaching, and systems that support kids being successful,” she said.
“Now I sometimes feel like talking about kids and education almost doesn’t fit.”