To the Editor:
I have served on the Manchester School Board for five years, the last year as Chairman. Together with board member Steve Murphy, I voted against the proposed budget and I will be voting against the budget again on March 1st. Murphy, and fellow board member Jon Wilson, have written letters to the paper explaining their opposing positions. Former Dean of Students Bill Bazyk recently added his informed opinion, characterizing each side. Laid out below are three reasons why I believe Manchester residents should vote against this budget.
1) The Status Quo Is Not Working, And A Vote For This Budget Is A Vote For The Status Quo. In his letter, Wilson stated, "I also understand the status quo will not suffice." Murphy rightly identified that Manchester Elementary Middle School (MEMS) needs "critical introspection." But a vote for this budget is a vote for the status quo—it forces no change. What this budget does is inflict upon Manchester residents a $149,000 penalty—a gift to Montpelier from the residents of Manchester with no actual benefit to our students. Worse, this penalty is only for this year. In their fix of Act 46, the legislature eliminated the penalty for fiscal year 2018 (FY18).
Wilson's claim "If we cut programming, then we will have families leave the school," ignores a fact he readily admits: families are already, and have been, leaving the school. In FY07, the Manchester equalized pupil count (the state's version of student population) was 742.23. The FY17 budget forecasts 604.41 equalized pupils, a 19% decline in 10 years. Program cuts are not the issue—ineffective programs are the issue. As Bill Bazyk points out, reading and math proficiency are down over a similar time period. Not only are we now educating fewer students, according to test scores those students are learning less.
2) We Cannot Keep Spending More Money on Fewer Students and Expect Things to Change. Over the last 10 years equalized pupils have declined 19%, yet education spending per equalized pupil has increased 42%, from $11,123/pupil in FY07 to this budget's proposed $15,829. Like Murphy, I am not advocating cutting programming; I am advocating not supporting the status quo and instead encouraging the school to rethink how it operates.
3) Act 46 Will Not Solve MEMS' Problems. Act 46 is a bill to force governance changes and ultimately to force the closure of inefficient schools. Consolidation with Danby, Dorset, Mt. Tabor, the Mountain Towns RED, and Sunderland will result in a dilution of local control for Manchester. Instead of a small, accountable five-member school board, consider that the committee to study consolidation will consist of 17 members, 12 of whom are not Manchester residents.
Wilson believes that Act 46 will allow us to "engage in a meaningful dialogue to find regional solutions that eliminate redundancies of services while enhancing the quality of education." Superintendent Dan French has spent years working through the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union to develop just those regional solutions and eliminate identified redundancies. Wilson also suggests we consider forming a regional middle school. We don't need school district consolidation to explore this idea. A regional middle school should be examined, and if it has merit, we should approach the appropriate partners. Nothing in Act 46 precludes Manchester from thinking creatively, which is also why the board formed a committee to look at the potential benefits of taking MEMS independent.
So what does Act 46 have to do with this year's budget? Aside from the penalty provisions, it will be years before a merger could be completed, before meaningful conversations could occur within the larger school board, and additional years before inefficient schools could be closed and more students enrolled in MEMS (assuming MEMS is not the inefficient school). The way to address MEMS' issues is to make changes now, not years from now. None of MEMS' current students, including my own daughter, can afford to wait.
The best path forward for MEMS is not to ask the residents for more money. MEMS needs to innovate, to begin to realize the potential of the changes in content (laptops, personalized learning plans, MAPS testing) and personnel (Principal Tom Quinn, Assistant Principal Kim Tenner), that have been made over the last several years. We need real changes that will give us successes to promote to bring new families to MEMS and to Manchester. The way to achieve real change is to tell the board and the school to try something different. That begins by voting down this budget.
Manchester School Board Chairman