Our Opinion: MAU model works for 'all our kids.'

With Governor Phil Scott reappointing Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe as the final member of his cabinet on Monday, those who were hoping for a complete or partial repeal of Act 46 may be left wanting. Whether or not the legislature will change certain aspects of the law moving forward is unknowable, but comments from state officials make it appear that the law as a whole is here to stay.

"We are in the middle of the implementation of universal pre-k and Act 46, and (Holcombe) knows the elements of these programs. She will be able to help the state move forward in both of these areas," said Rep. David Sharpe, chair of the House Education Committee, in an interview with VTDigger earlier this week.

With this in mind, and with the "carrot" of tax breaks for approved mergers soon disappearing, local districts need to keep in mind the "stick" that was written into the law, namely that if the State Board of Education hasn't approved a consolidation plan by 2019, the board and the Agency of Education can step in and implement their own plan.

This would have to be considered a worst-case scenario by local control advocates, with districts that delayed too long or couldn't come to agreements with their neighbors losing any ability to decide their futures for themselves. With this in mind, districts that have been dragging their feet should begin to legitimately look at merger scenarios, and think about what they would consider acceptable. If they wait too long, the ability to choose for themselves may pass them by.

In the case of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, at the most recent and likely final meeting of the Act 46 Exploratory Committee, the committee unexpectedly agreed to a path forward: Form a formal study committee dedicated to drafting articles of agreement based on the idea of a single board with members elected in the same way representatives are voted to the Mount Anthony Union board today. The board members run as representatives of their communities, but every town in the district is able to vote on all candidates.

The MAU model was deemed by the Vermont Supreme Court to be in keeping with the state's laws about proportionality in 1975 with the court case "Barnes v. Mount Anthony Union High School District." In January of last year, the state Agency of Education advised districts considering a merger that this "hybrid model" was considered an acceptable governance structure, along with the more common straight proportional and at-large models.

The hybrid model solves a serious concern many in North Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, and Woodford have had about a potential merged board. Two-thirds of the students in the SU are from Bennington, which, in a proportional model, would give the representatives from that town the power to outvote all the other towns combined. While that sounds great for Bennington, it's easy to see why smaller towns, who could risk having schools closed or teachers moved around on Bennington's whims, might be hesitant to embrace that model.

Moving forward, each board will have the opportunity to vote whether or not to join the new study committee. Some may hold out and push for a different governance model that better favors their district. But with time running out, and no sure extension coming from the legislature, the idea of compromise has never been more important.

The MAU model has worked for our region for almost 50 years, and members of that board do an excellent job looking out for all of their students, not just the ones from their town. Votes are very rarely along strictly town lines, and voters from one district would have recourse if a representative from another district was only looking out for their town and not the district as a whole. Bennington would still likely have the largest representation, as they do on MAU, just not an instant majority.

If the MAU model is the compromise necessary to keep talks moving forward, the boards should take this as an opportunity to negotiate in good faith and keep making progress towards an agreement, rather than holding out for something better to come along. If a merger ends up not being necessary, all the boards will have wasted is time, but if it ends up preventing the state from deciding what education will look like in the region, then every district will agree that it was worth it to have the discussions and to work toward a compromise.

In the end, it doesn't really matter which town the children come from. As SVSU superintendent Jim Culkeen said last week, "They're all our kids."


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