To recap from our editorial of two weeks ago, the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union (BVSU), composed of just two school districts - Arlington and Sandgate - and the larger Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union (BRSU), which includes some 10 school districts in the Northshire, were on the verge, it seemed, of finally being merged together and eventually creating one larger, and we would think, more efficient and cost-saving administrative unit. The opposition of the BVSU to this idea was well known ahead of time - they cherish their independence and the idea of local control. What was more surprising was the coolness of BRSU directors to the idea of a larger union. Coming on the heels of a large expansion in the Mountain Towns, and with a slight increase in assessment costs to their districts (offset overall to a large degree by savings in Arlington and Sandgate), combined with a concern that educational programs currently underway might get slowed down if they had to concentrate on yet another expansion, they balked at the idea.
We get all of that but still think the BRSU's board of directors should have been a little more open minded. Might there be some state money available to offset whatever temporary shortfalls might result from these sorts of mergers? There was talk of obtaining some sort of transitional grant, but not enough money was put on the table by the Education Agency. How much would have been needed? Could it have been obtained? Where was the leadership of the education agency?
For that matter, was enough serious consideration given to merging the BVSU in with the Bennington-based Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union? That might have been a better fit, but the record doesn't seem to show it was thoroughly explored.
Sooner or later, Vermont is going to have to consolidate and shrink the number of supervisory unions, and more significantly, its school districts, if education costs are to be reined in. Five cent increases in the residential property tax aren't going to be acceptable forever. It's kind of amazing that they didn't arouse more of an uproar this year. Perhaps the uproar comes in a silent way, when residents leave, or when businesses don't open or expand. But at some point, a declining number of students costing more and more to educate is a formula for stagnation, or worse.
The education of Vermont's students is a big deal and it's important to provide for that as well as possible.
The world is changing all around us and more than ever, the U.S. has to match global standards for excellence. It's not like the sky is falling, but thinking that it's okay for every small town which may not be large enough to have its own school is somehow big enough to have its own school district, with its own school directors, may no longer really be affordable when precious resources should be going to the classrooms.
An opportunity was missed here, in our view. Sadly, it seems likely that it won't come this way again for awhile.
And maybe the legislature, when it reconvenes in Montpelier next January, should put on its thinking caps on how it can finally restructure education costs and the taxes that pay for them, so Vermonters aren't squeezed, property tax rates are controlled and students get the education they are going to need to compete in the 21st century. Maybe it's time for some legislative leadership as well.