By Todd Smith | The Caledonian Record
Last Tuesday voters in Groton, Wells River and Ryegate faced an agonizing decision. It was clear to them that the powerful state Agency of Education, eager to enforce the school district consolidation mandated by Act 46, intended to kill their pre-K-12 Blue Mountain Union School District.
On Primary Day they were asked to cast a non-binding, advisory vote on whether to close Blue Mountain Union School to prevent a Montpelier-forced merger. The voters approved by a vote of 443 to 183.
By that vote the citizens expressed their choice to escape from public school consolidation tyranny by becoming a tuition district. That’s precisely what North Bennington did in 2012, when faced with pressure to consolidate with the much larger Bennington district. Today, after a long battle with the state and the Vermont-NEA teachers union, the K-8 North Bennington Village School, is independent and flourishing.
As before in North Bennington, and earlier in Windham, the mighty forces of public education expressed strong antipathy to any escape — either closing BMU School and tuitioning the students, or reopening the school as an independent parental-choice Blue Mountain Academy freed from their clutches.
According to Vermont Digger: “State Board chairperson Krista Huling said she’s heard of several districts thinking about closing their schools in order to avoid a forced merger, and is worried communities could be acting without all the facts. ‘When schools are making decisions out of fear, that isn’t always the best time to make a decision. You need to sometimes step back and really think about the long-term consequences,’ she said.”
Maybe Ms. Huling and the state education bureaucracy should have stepped back and looked at the long term consequences of enacting Act 46 in 2015.
The institutional opposition to BMU’s closure, and its possible conversion as an independent school, has trotted out the shopworn idea that “a voucher will do the students no good because they can’t afford to commute to St. Johnsbury, Danville or Thetford.” But Mill Moore, executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, explains “The Blue Mountain Union school district can vote to provide out-of-district transportation for tuitioned students, just as any in-district transportation is now provided. State law says every pupil “entitled or required to attend an elementary or secondary school may be furnished with total or partial transportation.”
Organizing an independent K-12 school won’t be quick and easy, as the North Bennington example illustrates. But we hope the local leaders successfully tackle the task, thereby ridding themselves of state meddling.
Todd M. Smith is the publisher of the Caledonian Record, where this editorial first appeared. He lives in St. Johnsbury.