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May 23rd, 2017

Senate Perspectives: School Daze

By Joe Benning
State Senator, Caledonia District

As Vermonters slowly adjust to the school governance models dictated by Act 46, it was inevitable that some are dazed and frustrated by the idea of forced change to the familiar. We Vermonters, after all, are naturally suspicious of activity under the Golden Dome. But my daily walk reminds me that education governance and delivery are always changing.

The road I live on is a hill, one of the earlier roads in town, built to reach a very old farmhouse perched on the top of that hill. At the other end is an intersection, a connecting artery older than my own road, built to reach widely dispersed farmhouses that controlled an agrarian economy since the early 1800’s.

Most driving by that intersection will never see it, but at a walking pace one notices an anomaly in the landscape, a cellar hole that leads the curious (me, anyway) to visit the local library. Perusal of an ancient Caledonia County map reveals the hole was once occupied by the Mosquito School, built to educate the children of the eight or nine families whose parents were area farmers in the nineteenth century. Since transportation at the time was limited to two or four legs, the town was forced by law to distribute schoolhouses to meet the needs of a widely dispersed student population growing up in an agrarian economy. In every town in the Northeast Kingdom, indeed in every Vermont town, educational cellar holes and still existing one room school houses converted to other uses are a common feature of our landscape.

The Mosquito School burned down in the 1950’s. I have no doubt a difficult conversation followed, a conversation now being repeated today over Act 46. Times had changed. The horse and buggy had been replaced by the horseless carriage. Farmers were trading in their plows for better paying jobs in town. There were better educational opportunities if children were sent to the bigger, more centralized schools. Conversely, there was genuine concern for the loss of local control and community engagement that small schools offered. Whether it was prohibitive cost, declining enrollment or a combination of both I do not know. They decided not to rebuild Mosquito School. Foliage invaded where a community once gathered to educate their children.

But the story does not end there. Over the course of the next three decades the remaining one room school houses and fine brick buildings built to educate a growing and more mobile student population became obsolete. By the 1990’s, another difficult debate ensued balancing the need for better space against the rising cost of maintaining deteriorating facilities. Familiar arguments over loss of community institutions versus cost savings and new educational opportunities split the town’s residents. In the end, a fine new school was built to accommodate 800 students.

But once again, the story didn’t end. Over the next two decades a substantial statewide decline in student population was also felt in Lyndon. (Student head count has now fallen below 500.) The Supreme Court’s Brigham decision resulted in legislation requiring state collection and distribution of all education taxes to more equitably deliver education to all Vermont students. But the tradeoff was loss of the local taxpayer’s ability to have direct control over his/her property tax rates. Property taxes rose even when local school boards decreased school budgets.

Twenty years later frustrated Vermonters demanded change and the legislature responded with Act 46. It changes governance boundary lines to provide better education at less cost. All change brings discomfort, but the ghosts still lingering over a cellar hole in Lyndon offer hope. Act 46 is not the end of the discussion. It is merely a momentary solution in a centuries-old debate that will continue long after we become ghosts ourselves. Governing boundary lines do not educate our children. The crucial component in our educational heritage is the willingness of parents and neighbors to stay engaged. If Vermonters stay focused on seeing our children succeed, our descendants will be all right.

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