Merger Would be Detrimental

Letter to the Editor: MAUSD-ANWSD merger would be detrimental

Addison Independent | October 20, 2022

By Louis DuPont

On August 9th voters in the towns of Bristol, Monkton and New Haven had their chance to weigh in on Starksboro’s effort to remove itself from the Mount Abraham Unified School District. Despite an overall tally of 1,105 in favor or “releasing” Starksboro to 894 against, a 28-vote margin in the Town of New Haven was enough to derail our effort.

The information campaign by the MAUSD administration and their advocates touted a projected 17% tax increase for the remaining towns if Starksboro was allowed to leave the district. This figure was repeated in many letters to the editor and posts on social media. Just three days before the vote, Superintendent Reen allowed as how the projected tax increase attributable to Starksboro’s departure was only 8.6%, or half the amount publicized for weeks. No apology or admission of error was made.

Despite the Starksboro Save our School committee’s publication of our analysis that the likely tax increase was closer to 3%, the damage had been done.

How did we get here? How is it that we have strong advocates of public education on opposite sides of the consolidation issue, both wanting to “preserve and expand student opportunity,” but disagreeing on the way forward? We have extremely dedicated school board members putting in many hours of their time to make our schools work despite the perceived crisis of enrollment decline. At the same time we have dedicated community members, some of them former school board members and administrators, working hard to ensure that we keep our community schools, and that we keep the governance of those schools close at hand. Perhaps it is a function of our age to be so divided and seemingly at odds with each other.

Now we are fast approaching another important decision concerning our schools. This time the future of the schools in the nine towns that comprise the Addison Northwest School District (Vergennes, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Bridport and Addison) and the MAUSD (Bristol, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro) are at stake. We are being asked to vote on whether or not the two districts should be merged to form one district with one board.

Without a doubt there are ways in which coordinating the work of the two districts makes sense. Food service for example, has been combined very successfully for almost ten years. But this collaboration did not require a merger in order to succeed. The proposed merger that is being promoted by both administrations is not needed and will be detrimental to our community schools. This is a wake-up call to the many voters who are unaware that this question is even on the ballot.

The continuing drumbeat for consolidation of school districts and School Boards, triggered by Act 46 and accelerated by exaggerated claims of savings and continuing pressure from the state, and certainly by declining enrollment, is pushing our school governance further from our schools. This is bad for our communities that place a high value on their local schools, and bad for the close oversight of our educational tax dollars.

For many years, Starksboro had a three-person school board that worked with our Superintendent to manage our budget, hire principals and make sure the school was in good repair. Though we were part of the five-town supervisory union, our board was particularly interested in, and responsible for the success of our school. If a community member or a parent saw something amiss, or knew of an opportunity for improvement, they called someone on the school board.

Though the governance structure was complex and occasionally exhausting for the superintendent, the local control was tangible and beneficial for both the school and the community.

Act 46 and the consolidation that followed changed this. For better or worse the MAUSD district now has one board of 13 instead of the 27 board members we had prior to consolidation. For administrators, it’s easy to understand the appeal of one budget and one board. There are definitely advantages of efficiency with a single board/budget. Less noted is the fact that we now have fewer community members engaged in school governance and oversight. We now have more of bureaucratic model, with less direct citizen involvement, and more administrative control.

If the merger passes we will continue down this road toward a more consolidated and less representative governance. We will have a single board managing a combined budget of over 60 million dollars and responsible for 10 schools. We will also set ourselves inevitably on a course to close a majority of the elementary schools in the two districts. I urge fellow residents of our two districts to vote no on this question.

Louis DuPont