The State Board of Education’s order that the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts merge raises a key moral question:
Should you do something because it seems convenient and follows marching orders, or should you do something because it’s right?
Four of the nine members of the state board thought Elmore-Morristown and Stowe are doing an excellent job of educating students well and efficiently, are in line with the state goal of having school districts with at least 900 students, are working together well as neighbors, and deserve to be left alone.
Five members thought the Elmore-Morristown and Stowe districts line up pretty well with one another, and since Act 46 urges school districts to merge into larger organizations if they can, the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown should merge.
Never mind that taxes will go up in Elmore-Morristown and go down in Stowe, or that Stowe’s tentative plan to invest up to $25 million in its school buildings would have to be shared by taxpayers in Elmore and Morristown, or that residents of the three communities aren’t much interested in combining into a single school district.
Around Vermont, there are districts where mergers are almost mandatory. About 10 percent of Vermont elementary schools have fewer than 50 pupils, and there’s no way for them to achieve teacher-student ratios that could bring per-pupil costs anywhere near the state average. And, since all of the state’s taxpayers share all of the bills for every school in Vermont, it’s unfair to support schools that will never come close to making financial sense.
That’s not the case in the Elmore-Morristown and Stowe school districts.
As state Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, said last week, forcing the merger of “two very high-functioning school districts that both already separately meet, and even exceed, the goals of Act 46 in a cost-effective way is as disappointing as it is wrong.”
Let’s review the Elmore-Morristown and Stowe arguments to remain as they are.
• Elmore-Morristown enrollment averages 898.85 per day, Stowe 761 but trending upward and expected to hit 900 within 10 years.
• The Elmore and Morristown districts merged in 2016, and details of that union are still being worked out. Now, the state wants them to start all over again.
• Because of the Elmore-Morristown merger, Stowe lost at least $100,000 a year in annual tuition revenue from Elmore students attending Stowe
• Graduation rates, AP test scores, the number of AP courses offered and SAT scores are all higher in Stowe and Elmore-Morristown than the state average.
• The state education agency praised the districts for proficiency-based learning, new technology in the classroom, personalized learning plans and student leadership opportunities. And, since 2016, the schools have added Spanish in all schools and are expanding Chinese language classes, rolled out new software to track elementary school performance, hired math and language coaches, offered summer “academic camps,” and are working on internship programs. These are not districts that are standing still academically.
• Per-pupil spending in both districts is below the state average, and the students-to-staff ratios in both districts are more efficient than the state average.
So, from the state’s perspective, what could be wrong with this picture?
Nothing, really. The schools are well-run, efficient, effective and innovative. But the law says that if districts can merge easily, they ought to merge, or be forced to merge.
So, the state board made a decision by default, not because it’s right.
And that’s not right.