The following editorial appeared in the January 30 edition of the Messenger:
It is natural for lawmakers to rush to the aid of their constituents, to save them from harm that may inadvertently be coming their way, or harm caused by prior action. But rushing in can also cause more harm than good, which is the case with legislative proposals to delay the forced school mergers under Act 46.
There are 30 or so mergers that are being contested in court. The mergers are to go into effect on July 1 and the question before the court – asked by the petitioners – is whether the court will issue a preliminary injunction on the mergers until the question of Act 46’s constitutionality is resolved.
Legislators are putting their own spin on the issue by holding hearings on legislation that would impose a year’s delay on the forced mergers. The thought is that delaying something that is already being challenged in court couldn’t hurt. Besides, taking action to delay the mergers would make the legislators look as if they were coming to the aid of their aggrieved constituents.
It’s hard to imagine a more inappropriate response.
There can’t be more than a tiny handful of educators – those actually running the show in each of the state’s school districts – who would favor a year’s delay. Even the educators within those 30 districts contesting the forced mergers.
A year’s delay would clarify nothing. It would do precisely the opposite. Educators at all levels, in all Vermont’s school districts, already merged or not, have spent countless hours going through the consolidation efforts. They want an end to the process so they can get back to their core business, which is educating their students. The thought of stringing the uncertainty out for another year sends shudders down their spines.
They have budgets to craft and management issues to resolve. The last thing they want is to be put in the position of not knowing what’s next for another 12 months.
Not only would the delay not solve any issues, it could put at risk the progress that has been made. The Act 46 consolidation process has yet to be finalized and just as there are loose ends to tie up there are also loose ends that could be pulled apart. That’s the risk legislators take if they were to follow through with the foolishness to delay the mergers. It allows mischief to be made where none should be.
It’s also important for legislators to recognize that the noise in favor of delaying the mergers is coming from a small group of advocates. They do not represent a significant number of Vermont voters, or even close. Why, then, would legislators take action based on the reaction of a few when the effect would be statewide? That makes no sense.
We’re in this position because, as usual, the aggrieved are the ones commanding the attention. Those who have seen the benefits of consolidation are not part of the discussion, they are on to other things and are looking ahead. The resulting perception is that the forces in favor of the delay are much larger than they truly are.
The fact that we have people upset with the state board of education for forcing some school districts to merge is understandable. People don’t like change. They don’t want their little schools merged with other little schools. They don’t want their kids going to school with kids from another schools, changing the relationships in the classrooms. And in a number of circumstances it didn’t make sense to consolidate schools, and the state board agreed.
But legislators should be wary of blending the opposition of a few districts into a statewide discussion about the wisdom of Act 46 itself and that’s what could happen if the Legislature decided to put the mergers on hold for a year.
Act 46 doesn’t need to be flushed out for its meaning. It’s value has been understood from the outset. It’s been a crucial piece of legislation that not only forces school districts to become more efficient, but, more important, it’s a law that forces districts to take a look at the educational opportunities afforded their students. That’s what’s being lost in this debate. Those improved educational outcomes are what the future of Vermont depends upon.
Let’s hope legislators keep this perspective in mind and that they begin to understand how delaying things for a year could hurt almost everyone and help no one.