Our opinion: T&G changes course on district pre-K issue

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Up until this point, the Taconic & Green Regional School District has led a largely charmed existence.

While many school districts throughout Vermont couldn't reach consensus on an Act 46 merger, the nine towns that became the T&G found common ground rather than irreconcilable differences. Their merger committee members showed foresight and leadership in adopting the mantra "all our kids are all our kids," and the voters responded by passing a merger by an overwhelming margin.

That, in turn, allowed the new district to start life with the tax incentives the state offered as the carrot for Act 46 mergers — and avoid the stick of a forced merger.

But there were bound to be complications. There always are.

The new district faced its first real controversy the past two months, as it enacted a policy change intended to comply with Act 166, the 2014 state law providing for universal access to publicly funded pre-kindergarten education and setting standards for both private and public pre-K programs.

That law has resulted in a number of unintended consequences. And one of them was that the T&G could not add capacity to its pre-K offerings unless it could show that demand had exceeded private supply.

But proposing the five-day program at Manchester Elementary Middle School be reduced to to four days, or even two, and raising the possibility of a lottery to determine enrollment, hit a nerve with parents — as did the way the decision was communicated to them.

Those parents showed up, and spoke up. And they made convincing arguments.

Certainly, the T&G was caught between a rock and a hard place in its efforts to provide equity across the district and adhere to the law. But working parents need pre-K for their children five days a week. And many need affordable pre-K, as private options can be hard to find and relatively expensive.

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It's to the credit of the BRSU administration and the T&G board that they recognized the proposed changes were not the way to go forward, and changed course. On Monday, they decided instead to pursue a five-day program similar to what is offered now at MEMS, and take their case to Montpelier.

Here's hoping the state agencies overseeing Act 166 see the pickle that's been created and grant the district a waiver allowing a five-day program to continue. Furthermore, we hope that the Legislature makes the necessary corrections to the law to prevent similar situations elsewhere. We know this: Members of the district's delegation are well aware there's a problem.

But here in the midst of unintended consequences was an unintended benefit.

One of the criticisms of Act 46 mergers, locally and around the state, is that the loss of a town school district reduces citizen involvement in governance.

A regional school district meeting in a location outside the town borders is less likely to encourage residents to attend, get involved, and know what they're voting for, the argument goes.

But the T&G Pre-K Saga of 2019 shows us that's not so.

When a policy decision that threatened to impact families came to light, parents got involved, and they were heard loud and clear.

And Rachel Strecker, a Manchester attorney, was moved enough by this issue to not only speak up, but run as a write-in for a vacant at-large seat representing the district's four largest towns (Danby, Dorset, Londonderry and Manchester).

In an era when people are busier than ever, and don't have as much time to devote to public service, we are glad to see folks get involved and step forward to serve their communities. We hope that's the leading edge of a growing trend in the T&G.


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