Correcting the Record

As November 8 draws closer, voters in Addison, Bristol, Ferrisburgh, Monkton, New Haven, Panton, Starksboro, Vergennes and Waltham are likely to hear and read a variety of exaggerated and unsupported claims about the benefits of the proposed merger between the Addison Northwest School District and the Mt. Abraham Unified School District. In fact, some of those claims have already begun to circulate. Here is a list of some of those claims accompanied by an attempt to correct the record.

Claim: The upcoming merger vote is “only” about merging governance.

That may be technically true. But as all of the Committee’s meetings, transportation studies, mailings, fliers and its 152-page report to the Vermont Agency of Education make perfectly clear, the intention is to merge governance in order to enable:

  • merging superintendents’ offices;

  • revoking towns’ right to vote on the future of their elementary schools:

  • removing all 6th graders from their town elementary schools and moving them to one merged middle school; and

  • merging high schools and middle schools, placing one in Bristol and the other in Vergennes, causing longer bus rides for more students at a very high cost.

In 2016 MAUSD, the five towns of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro approved a merger of their school districts. Since then, we have experienced less fiscal transparency; less board oversight; less communication between our schools and the board; less communication between our communities and the board; less authority of principals for school budgeting, staffing, and supervision of staff; and more top-down decision making. In light of that experience, why would we vote to move governance even farther from our schools than it has already been moved? Why would we believe that the proposed merger is a good idea?

Claim: A merged single organizational structure will provide a more coherent system of teaching and learning PreK-12 with a greater ability to provide better outcomes for learners.

There is absolutely NO evidence to support the claim that merging would improve these outcomes. There is no evidence that these benefits could not be achieved through collaboration, without merging governance. In fact, the Merger Study Committee chairs refused to let the committee members engage in conversation about ways to achieve these goals through collaboration, without merging governance.

Claim: Merging MAUSD and ANWSD will protect our elementary schools.

Actually, if the merger passes, the new merged board would have the right to close any elementary school after the first 4 years of the merger, without the permission of the voters of that school’s town. In addition, even in the first year of the merger, the new merged board would be able to remove up to 3 grade levels from any K-6 school, and place them in a different school. The board would have this authority with no town or district vote. Not only could that board move all 6th grades to the middle school. It could move all 4th 5th and 6th grades out of their home schools.

Claim: One of the stated goals of the merger is to “enhance educational opportunities and provide greater equity for students” (MSC Report to the State Board p.5)

There is NO evidence to support the assertion that merging governance is the best way to achieve these goals. The MSC never discussed ways to achieve these goals other than by merging governance. It is hard to believe in the Committee’s commitment to equity since, as one example, its Articles of Agreement (See Article 14D) allow for school choice among all schools beginning in the first year of operation, without providing transportation to schools outside of students’ town of residence. This is a highly inequitable policy because many families would not be able to afford to provide this transportation.

Claim: Merging will save money.

There is no evidence to support this assertion. Even the MSC report says: “Forming a union does not necessarily directly result in cost efficiencies and lower tax rate increases; decisions need to continue to be made in the future to have the greatest positive impact on student learning opportunities and property tax rates.” (Merger Study Committee Report to the VT Board of Education p.7; See also the tax rate graph, p.29)

Claim: Approving a merger between ANWSD and MAUSD will solve the problem.

The problem that MAUSD and ANWSD are trying to solve is the direct result of declining enrollment (in the context of a state funding system that was designed when enrollment was increasing). Merging governance, adding more yellow buses and lengthening bus rides for more students to an hour or more each way will NOT solve the problem of declining enrollment. In fact it would probably make that problem worse because young families will choose to settle in school districts with closer schools and shorter bus rides. Imagine how things might be different now if we, and the MAUSD and ANWSD Boards and Superintendents, had spent the past 2+ years working together with our communities on strategies for increasing enrollment - for attracting new families to our towns!

Claim: Fiscal constraints are leading to fewer educational opportunities for students, especially high school and middle school students, and merging governance is the way to solve that.

Fiscal constraints are a real problem. But actually, we could expand educational opportunities for students in a variety of ways without needing to take the radical step of merging governance. For example: creative collaboration between MAUSD and ANWSD would enable both districts to offer a specific course, taught by 1 teacher, to students in BOTH schools. The course would meet remotely some of the time, and in person some of the time. And this is just one example. As former Rutland Northeast superintendent and former member of the State Board of Education Bill Mathis put it in his August 18 Addison Independent editorial, The Chance Has Arrived for a Rebirth of our VT Schools

“For the high schools, perhaps it is time for a completely new look at our model. Simply consolidating to drive longer distances to a high school which does not meet the social, economic, or democratic purposes of society seems too hasty a leap. Given the cauldron of chaos we face, to simply replicate what we know is woefully inadequate. With threats of insurrection, the loom of artificial intelligence, a transformation of work, pandemics, environmental degradation and redefinitions of our social contracts; we cannot resolve these by adding more yellow buses.”