School merger facts worth learning

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On Town Meeting day, the voters of nine communities in our region will consider a fundamental change — entering a newly-merged regional school district under the auspices of Act 46, the state law encouraging such mergers.

A yes vote in Manchester, Dorset, and the Mountain Towns Regional Education District — Londonderry, Landgrove, Peru and Weston — would create the Taconic & Green RED. Voters in Danby, Mt. Tabor and Sunderland would determine if those towns would join the district, and that in turn would have an effect on the composition of the board; but a no vote in those towns would not scuttle the merger. (For Currier Union District No. 23 to join the district, both Danby and Mt. Tabor need to vote yes.)

That's a big step. And there will be many opportunities for voters to learn more about what it all means. (Start here: https://sites.google.com/site/northshiremergerstudy/)

Forums are scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 9 Flood Brook School in Londonderry (for all voters), Monday, Feb. 27 at Burr and Burton Academy (all voters), Tuesday, Feb. 28 at Sunderland Elementary School (Sunderland voters) and on March 2 at the Manchester Community Library (all voters). All are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. (The session at BBA was organized independent of the study committee.)

It behooves voters to take the time to learn the issues, think about the possible ramifications and give this some careful thought.

We think a merger makes sense by any number of criteria. Here's our reasoning:

- There's something to be said for coming up with a home-cooked plan now, rather than letting Montpelier make the decision later.

- The property tax relief that serves as the carrots in Act 46's carrot and stick approach is limited in size and duration, but any relief will be welcomed by property taxpayers in the new district, through an equalized tax rate that would be the same for taxpayers in each town. If a merger isn't approved by July 1, those incentives go away.

- School choice for grades 9-12 will be preserved -- a factor that matters greatly to many parents in our region.

- From maintenance to procurement, the merged district may be able to achieve an economy of scale that its individual members could not achieve on their own. It could also stem the future growth of the tax rate for the district in ways that would not be possible if each town decided to go it alone, since a larger district with more students stands a better chance of avoiding penalties for not meeting the state's spending-per-pupil targets.

- A school district that successfully serves several towns can serve as a model for future municipal government and public-private economic development efforts.

That's not to say there are no potential drawbacks.

Danby, Mt. Tabor, and Sunderland students would eventually lose school choice for grades 7 and 8 and be required to attend Dorset, Flood Brook or MEMS (though current students would be grandfathered, and the new school board would have the power to create an intra-district school choice system). Significant property tax savings might not be realized for some time. And even though there's a four-year moratorium on closing member schools, and a supermajority vote of the district board required to close a school thereafter, we can understand why voters in smaller towns might be skittish. But there's no guarantee that those smaller schools would fare any better going it alone.

And we can't imagine a scenario where area residents would prefer Montpelier making decisions about how a new district would operate.

Most importantly, a larger unified district stands a better chance of offering high quality education to all of the towns in the district, regardless of wealth or population.

We believe public schools are vital to building strong communities — not just for developing skilled employees, but well-rounded citizens who take an active interest in self-government and the civic, cultural and natural environment around them.

In the end, it's up to you to decide if this is the best way to make those schools stronger.

And the best decision is an informed decision.

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