Now the hard work begins

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It's not an easy thing, in a part of the world where self-governance and self-reliance is an important source of identity and pride, to cede a measure of local control and join forces with your neighbors.

That's the big step that the town meeting voters of the Taconic and Green Regional School District took on Tuesday.

It's a significant change, and sometimes change is scary. There are no guarantees in life, after all.

But a smart, forward-thinking plan beats doing nothing — if that plan is followed up by action and persistence.

VOTER SUPPORT

There was a Plan B in place — a merger that didn't include any or all of three towns that would have to give up middle school choice (Sunderland, Danby and Mount Tabor). But even that wasn't needed; the merger proposal won comfortably in all three towns, as well as in larger towns where passage was required to move forward.

Perhaps that level of support should not come as a surprise. The towns of the new district are not strangers to each other. They shop in the same stores, work in the same places, wait in the same ski lift lines and, most crucially, send their kids to the same high schools. This was not an arranged marriage of total strangers. There was also the knowledge that Act 46 didn't give the region a choice; if it failed to pass a merger agreement, the State Board of Education would have imposed one. And so the voters of our region have decided their schools will move forward, together.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

As difficult as it may have been to bring this proposal from an initial committee meeting forced by unpopular legislation to a strong vote of confidence by the voters of nine towns, the hard part has not yet begun.

The new board will face the same fundamental issues that have bedeviled school boards for years — containing rising costs to taxpayers amid a dwindling student population, while still providing the best possible education for the money and respecting the hard work and dedication of educators.

Some folks who voted no, and some who voted yes because they preferred a local decision on the matter, have concerns about whether the new structure will offer any real educational advantages. Manchester's school town meeting, for example, heard from a number of folks concerned that approving the merger meant ceding local control of its school to a wider regional board.

Perhaps some of those citizens concerned about local control might consider running for one of the four at-large seats on the Taconic and Green board, which are afforded to the four largest towns in the district — Manchester, Dorset, Danby and Londonderry — at the next election. And that board can then set about the business of building consensus and innovating in ways that improve educational opportunity for all. For the largest towns in the district, the new paradigm of local control requires getting and staying involved in the district's governance. It only becomes a distant bureaucracy if apathy wins out over involvement. And this country learned the hard way in November what happens when voters tune out on citizenship.

Act 46 remains a ham-fisted and flawed piece of legislation. But we might very well look back on this vote and ask "Why didn't we do that sooner?"

Whether that will happen depends upon whether citizens take this opportunity and make the most of it.

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