By Gov. Peter Shumlin
When Julia Dunn arrived at middle school, she learned something troubling about education in her community. Students from certain towns were well prepared in math, and students from some other towns were not. Some students had strong arts education in elementary school, and others did not. Some had studied foreign languages, and some had not. The preparation her peers received — or didn’t — in elementary school affected their choices in middle school and beyond. Not addressing this inequity when it is so obvious, she observed, sends the message that we support inequity.
Dunn decided to do something about it. She ran for school board, believing that she and her district had an obligation to make sure that all kids had access to comparable opportunities. This past year, as a student member of the Chittenden East Supervisory Union board, Dunn watched the successful unification of the Mt. Mansfield Modified Unified School District, which expanded her school community beyond the geographic confines of a town in an attempt to address these glaring educational inequities.
Sometimes it takes a young person to tell us what we need to hear.
Across Vermont, school boards are grappling with Act 46, the new legislation that provides financial support for districts that want to collaborate and come together to share resources to better provide for their kids. The need is real. Many of our communities have struggled with profound enrollment declines over the last 20 years, which have undermined educational quality and caused property taxes to rise faster than Vermonters can afford.
These are all our children, and we owe them the best we can provide, regardless of where they were born and in what town they live. And, when we invest in them today, we are investing in a stronger future for Vermont—a future with better educated, healthier and more employable Vermonters, and more resilient, independent, and affordable communities.
Serving kids well today requires more specialized expertise and coordination of services than our schools have previously had to provide. It also requires our commitment to be prudent about how we use our shared Education Fund. We need to use our scarce dollars where they matter most: supporting the interaction between our teachers and our children.
What does this mean for school boards and our communities? It means first and foremost, starting with our goals for our children. What do we want all our children to know and be able to do? How do we provide education in an equitable way, so that these goals are accessible to all our children?
In some regions, it may mean enlarging what we think of as our “community.” When small schools are part of a larger union, they become insulated from some of the year-to-year shocks to tax rates that are currently wreaking havoc on budgets in some of our smallest districts. Act 46 consolidates governance, not school buildings. Based on statewide patterns, small schools actually have a better chance of remaining open under these new governance structures. Without change, many of our smallest schools will close, and some are looking at increases in their tax rates in coming years of 40 to 60 percent. That’s not sustainable for kids, communities, or property taxpayers.
Most of all, what Act 46 does is provide school boards with tools they can use to take charge of their own destinies. The price of not changing how we deliver education in response to the decline in enrollment is born statewide, and this price is squeezing out educational opportunities for our children, district by district, and watching property taxes continue to rise at unsustainable rates. The new law provides tax relief to communities who want to unite to protect their schools and enhance opportunities.
None of us wants declining enrollments and fiscal pressures. However, we have them. The question we face is how we respond. This will not be easy work. While there are no easy answers, there are some better ones. And I feel confident that Act 46 provides some tools our communities can use to get there, enhance educational quality, and bring property tax relief to Vermonters.
As Julia Dunn and so many other students have pushed us to realize, a resilient school community is based on shared purposes and strong relationships, not town borders. I have faith in the ability of Vermonters to roll up their sleeves and work together to create local solutions.