Editorial: Expanding the merger debate

<p> Residents of the seven-town Addison Central Supervisory Union should embrace the decision of that board to explore the feasibility of merging their resources and governance through consolidation. No possible harm can come from having an ad hoc committee explore the issues, discuss the relevant facts and engage the communities in a discussion about the future of their respective schools.</p><p> We add, however, a caution and encourage expanding the scope of the discussion.</p><p> The caution is well known: if the discussion is limited to choosing various scenarios that combine schools in one town but close them in another based primarily on economic considerations, the chance for success is limited and fraught with tension. What&rsquo;s missing from these discussions is an emphasis on the positive changes that could come from rethinking the current structure of education within a school district &mdash; an aspect of the topic that absolutely falls within the scope of mergers and consolidations.</p><p> An earlier study has already produced a report with facts, figures and suggestions. We know that enrollment in the district&rsquo;s elementary schools has dropped from a high of 1,402 during the 1990s to around 830 today. We know Mary Hogan Elementary has room for 134 additional students, Bridport could take another 43 and Salisbury Elementary could take another 80 in its relatively new facility. Merger scenarios already proposed include merging Bridport and Weybridge with Bridport as the host school, or building a new union school that would unite Shoreham, Bridport, Weybridge and Cornwall; as well as closing Ripton and sending those students to either Salisbury or Ripton; or shut down Ripton and Salisbury and send them all to Mary Hogan. (See story on Page 1A.)</p><p> Pick your favorite scenario and you&rsquo;ll immediately be able to identify the staunchest opponents. Merger efforts like this have failed for the past decade and are likely to fail again &mdash; in the absence of significant state subsidies &mdash; for simple reasons: the pain is greater than the gain.</p><p> So broaden the discussion.</p><p> Let&rsquo;s get away from the idea of closing one school or the other and focus on educational outcomes through restructuring. To begin, do the current outcomes meet our students&rsquo; needs? Could we benefit from a stronger emphasis on science, reading, math? Does it make sense &mdash; as some European countries do &mdash; to identify student interests early on (third or fourth grade) and guide them in that direction (think computer studies, electronics, medicine, local foods, engineering)? Will consolidation allow schools to realize significant savings by combining special education resources and developing programs that would collectively enhance that educational experience? To what extent can our school districts work with the state college system, including CCV, to provide adult education programs and to what extent can early education programs be incorporated within the school district &mdash; potentially adding hundreds of students who would use existing facilities?</p><p> Once the district&rsquo;s objectives are established, and if the focus remains on student outcomes, the physical facilities should be viewed from a different perspective. That perspective would necessarily become less about the school building as a community center, and more about what is being taught in that building to which students and how their piece of the pie fits into the whole.</p><p> An important premise here is that the state&rsquo;s educational needs are paramount; that we should not abandon expensive buildings and allow them to rot, but rather use these valuable resources in creative ways that strengthen our economy and expand our communities&rsquo; resources. Above all, we should understand that education is a growth business, and the need to meet the demand of employers &mdash; in tomorrow&rsquo;s knowledge-based economy &mdash; will only increase.</p><p> Today&rsquo;s challenge is to see this educational infrastructure not as an albatross but as a valuable asset, and figure out ways to use these resources to the communities&rsquo; greatest advantage.</p><p class="rteright"> Angelo S. Lynn</p>

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Addison County Independent

58 Maple Street
Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100