Stay the Course

The long and drawn out saga of whether or not the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union (BVSU) will stay independent, or merge with one of the two adjoining supervisory unions may finally be reaching its endgame.

Then again, if recent past history is any guide, it may not.

Hopefully common sense and the greater good for the greater number will guide the thinking around this question, and lead to the logical scenario that has been waiting all along. That would involve the BVSU merging or consolidating with one of its two neighbors - the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union, which includes Manchester, Dorset, Sunderland and a host of other neighboring towns, or the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union (SVSU), which is based in Bennington and includes other neighboring school districts from Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford.

The BVSU was carved out of the SVSU back in the mid-1980s, when school officials from Arlington grew concerned that their school district was getting the short end of the stick when it came to central office attention, resources and sensitivity. That may well have been a plausible point of view back then. Plus, there is always something positive you can say about keeping governance as close to home as possible. Local control is a mainstay of Vermont tradition and culture, as it is in many places, especially rural ones, where historically communication gets sketchier the further away the decision makers are from the scene of the action. It's a lot easier for a parent or a taxpayer with a grievance to call someone local whom they may know personally, and air out the problem, rather than calling Montpelier or some other town long distance.

Email and the myriad of other communication tools we now have at our disposal may have lessened that feeling somewhat, but in general, we understand and support the notion of keeping things as local as possible. But on the education front, that horse has left the barn.

Since the passage of Act 60 in 1998, then Act 68 in 2003, we've had a statewide property tax that makes education costs across the state everybody's business and interest. No longer can one town, or towns - in this case Arlington and Sandgate - plausibly argue that their costs, programs and services are their business alone. Other taxpayers also have an interest, for better or worse. We think that's for the better. Students may go to school in one town, but then they graduate and may go all over the place. The skills they bring with them matter to many communities.

The BVSU has been unenthusiastic about losing its independent status and has made it blindingly clear they would like things to stay just as they are. You can't blame them for wanting that, but with education costs on an inexorable upward trajectory and an unsustainable situation of fewer students costing more and more to educate, that's not realistic. Merge they must, and merge they shall, eventually. The question is whether they look north to the BRSU, or south to the SVSU.

What's more surprising and somewhat disappointing is the negative stance struck by board directors of the BRSU last week. Granted, the BRSU has expanded at a rapid clip in recent years, adding five more towns to its roster. But that is what is necessary to happen in Vermont. We have way too many supervisory unions and their attendant administrative costs. We have way too many small schools, which may be charming and rooted in their communities as well as educationally strong (or not), but that's another issue.

BRSU directors are understandably worried about absorbing some extra administrative costs by consolidating with Arlington and Sandgate (those two school districts would see substantial savings). But in the big picture, it is a desirable outcome that the merged supervisory union would see a reduction of combined costs. The ultimate goal should be to reduce the number of supervisory unions down to close to the number of counties in the state - fourteen or so. Maybe Chittenden County needs two. Maybe not.

Simply reducing the number of administrators, office supplies and personnel will save some money, if not enough to really make a difference in the typical Vermonters tax burden. More reform will be required for that. Right-sizing the number of schools and matching them up to deliver the needed educational services to the state's students will be a difficult and painful process, one that educators, lawmakers and the general public have put off and avoided for a long time. The legislature almost took a shot at it this past session before ducking it again. It's unlikely to be grasped in 2014, an election year, but maybe by the following year, in 2015, as taxpayers get to contemplate another large increase in the base education rate after paying this year's tax bills, momentum may finally have gathered sufficiently.

If Arlington and Sandgate are to join the BRSU (Sandgate was part of the BRSU until the early 1990s), let's hope the BRSU leadership is ready to welcome them. Superintendent Daniel French of the BRSU has done an excellent job, we believe, of guiding the supervisory union through some extraordinary times and has demonstrated the ability of his office to take on expanded responsibilities with the absorption of the Mountain Towns Regional District and also Winhall. There's no reason to think they can't do the same with the BVSU.

The BVSU is the state's smallest supervisory union and if a merger between them and a larger entity can't be made to work, one has to wonder how consolidation is possible at all. The problem is that it's not an option not to consolidate. Things can be done more or as efficiently, and for less money, post-consolidation. The identities of the towns and school districts involved, will, we are sure, survive. Once every little town in the state had a little one room school. Now they don't, but Mt. Tabor is still different from Bondville which is different from Sunderland. The world will go on.


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