Our Opinion: A missed opportunity

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The voters of Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford had an opportunity in front of them to be stronger together, with a unified school district that mirrored the arrangement that has served the towns' shared high school well for decades.

According to unofficial results, they did — by a two-thirds majority.

But the decision on whether to form a unified school district was made town-by-town, not voter-by-voter. It would only pass if Bennington and two of the other three towns voted "yes."

According to unofficial results, Woodford said no by a mere two votes, while Pownal said no by just four.

And much like Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the electoral college, the proposed Act 46 merger won the popular vote, but lost the election.

The first lesson to take away from this is that you should never assume your vote doesn't matter. It most surely does.

And just like that, unless the results are successfully challenged in a recount, the plan for a unified school district is now a missed opportunity.

State education secretary Rebecca Holcombe and the state Board of Education will now likely decide what a merged district will look like. We hope that the overall support for the measure will convince Holcombe and the board that whatever they decide upon should closely match what was proposed to voters.

And there's every indication that a state-directed merger is going to happen. Act 46 is the law, and the area's legislative delegation has made clear that there's no desire in Montpelier to overturn the law.

Oddly enough, those who voted no to preserve "local control" may very well have ensured that the state will now decide everything that happens to the district.

One thing the merger will not include, unless there's a recount, is the graduated tax incentives the state offered school districts in return for consolidating. That's another missed opportunity, one residents will feel when the tax bill arrives.

Perhaps what's most disappointing about this result is that a locally-designed compromise that would reflect the governance for middle- and high-school education —a model that has proven successful for decades — is now up in the air, despite the fact that two-thirds of the electorate thought it was a good idea.

Why Woodford and Pownal were on the fence over the merger when Bennington and Shaftsbury were enthusiastically in support is a question that proponents of the merger and the SVSU administration will have to ask themselves. The advantages to both towns were there — assurances that schools would not be closed without two three-fourths majority votes a year apart, tax incentives, and more predictable budgets and tax rates among them.

Furthermore, this was not a forced marriage of strangers; this was a logical continuation of a mutually beneficial arrangement that has worked well since MAU was born.

Now, the district has fences to mend — while appointed state officials get to play matchmaker.

And keep this in mind: This is a state with a very low teacher to pupil ratio and very high per-pupil costs. There will be real financial pressure going forward to close small schools, such as Woodford and Pownal, and now appointed state officials get to decide the mechanism for doing so.

Since a merger is still likely, there is still the potential to see real benefits to the delivery of education that would come out of having a merged district. By eliminating district borders, the new unified board could work toward meeting the needs of all students, not just the ones from any one town. The new board would have the opportunity to implement inter-district school choice, which many parents have called for. Staff could be moved to where they are needed most, which could both improve outcomes for students and add job security for teachers. Rather than preparing the same reports for six different boards, the central office staff would have more time to focus on improving educational services. A truly unified curriculum would also ensure that all schools are working together toward the same goal.

All that might still happen. Whether it will happen quickly, or on terms that are agreeable to area voters, parents and educators, is now an open question.


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