School district mergers in compliance with VT Act 46 have been controversial in many towns. When I first joined the Joint 706 Committee in my town of Orange, we were tasked with examining how Orange and neighboring Washington could comply with Act 46. I was doubtful I could support a merger to form a unified Washington and Orange school district, which would potentially be part of a side-by-side regional education district with Williamstown-Northfield. As I saw it then, it was simply a way for the State to take away local control from our school board and offered no real benefit to our kids. More than a year later, I cannot imagine a better move for our schools to take than to merge the Washington and Orange school boards and reconfigure our classrooms. It is strange to admit, but I might actually be grateful for the not-so-gentle shove this legislation has given our communities towards a school merger.
The reasons for my change in opinion are simple: Most importantly, this merger proposal, which has been pre-approved by the Dept. of Educ., will allow our towns to have a pre-K through 4 elementary school in one of our existing school buildings and grade 5-8 middle school in the other. If this reconfiguration occurs, we’ll be able to keep both of our existing school buildings, which serve as centers for our communities, but will now routinely have enough students in each grade level to create single-grade classrooms for all students. Single-grade classrooms are the norm in more populated towns, but for rural towns such as Orange and Washington, we are far more dependent on the ups and downs of population swings from year to year and frequently have too few students in a grade to warrant the salary of a dedicated teacher. Instead, we join multiple grades to make up the student numbers. Having spoken with the well-respected teachers of my own two children at OCS, each of them said categorically that they find multi-grade classrooms extremely challenging in light of the our currently mandated Common Core curriculum and testing regime. They both would strongly prefer to be able to teach to just one grade’s requirements and believe our students would benefit greatly from this more directed approach. Absent this merger, neither school has the financial resource to ensure all students have access to a teacher focused just on his or her grade level requirements.
Another benefit of this merger and resulting reconfiguration is the chance to create an age-appropriate environment for our kids and to prepare them for new experiences. We would have an elementary school setting in one building and a middle school setting in the other. Unlike the current system where students stay at the same facility from pre-k to 8th grade, students would now move from one school building to the other, experiencing a transition from elementary to middle school, which I view as a beneficial first step to being prepared to face the far bigger challenges for a rural student of transferring from 8th grade to high school, and high school to college.
There will of course be efficiencies generated by a merger, both in administration and staff, although since both schools will remain operational, these savings will be relatively small. Nevertheless any savings from these efficiencies, however small, could be channeled into a broader course offering, perhaps for example offering a language or music at an earlier age.
While I recognize that test scores are far from the only measure of success, I am concerned that student test scores at Orange and Washington often fall well-below state averages. If we don’t take this step, and instead leave it to the State to dictate how to comply with Act 46 instead of implementing our own approach, we may miss the opportunity to improve this outcome. In my view merging Orange Center School with the Washington Village School will create a more age appropriate and supportive learning environment for both students and teachers, and unlike in the past, the grant and tax incentives make this even more attractive. This is true whether or not the Northfield and Williamstown side-by-side is successful, and perhaps equally important to many parents, it will not take away any student in Orange or Washington’s right to school choice for high school.
Neither apathy nor ignorance should undermine this opportunity to bring positive change to the school structure in Orange and Washington. I hope our town residents can take the time to find out more about the proposed merger at an upcoming information session (April 26th at the Orange Town Hall, 6 p.m.) and if they agree with our Committee, vote YES on May 2nd (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) in support of this school merger.
Genevieve W Faherty, Esq