The Act 46 wrecking ball

The website of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a campaign against sprawl called “Smart Growth.” Vermont has wholeheartedly endorsed the smart-growth program by promoting walkable village centers and insisting on building within village limits, rather than outside them, to stem suburban sprawl and preserve open lands.

From the people that brought you the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and other environmental protections, we read the following, on a page titled “Smart Growth in Small Towns and Rural Communities”:

“Small towns and rural communities throughout the United States are looking for ways to strengthen their economies, provide better quality of life, and build on local assets. Many rural communities and small towns are facing challenges, including rapid growth at metropolitan edges, declining rural populations, and loss of farms and working lands.

“Slow-growing and shrinking rural areas might find that their policies are not bringing the prosperity they seek, while fast-growing rural areas at the edge of metropolitan regions face metropolitan-style development pressures.”

These issues are well known. As American social culture becomes ever more alienated, focused on glowing screens purveying second- and thirdhand information, and the intimacy of direct interaction ever more rare, urban refugees flock to places like Vermont, hungering for the small-town, hands-on, face-to-face way of life. The State of Vermont is trying to cash in on this hunger with a far-reaching branding campaign to recruit them, based on those very qualities.

So what was the Legislature thinking, enacting Act 46, which takes a wrecking ball to the very community values that make Vermont so appealing?

Since the earliest charters, our schools have been the heart and soul of our towns. Universal education was an official priority and schoolhouses dotted the roads and hillsides to assure access from even the remotest farms. School support rested on the property tax, the most reliable and predictable source of revenue. Woodlots were earmarked to supplement school revenue from the sale of timber. The advanced students attended the academies, several of which are still operating. School boards enjoyed autonomy parallel to the select boards.

Now, district consolidation as a management tool seems to have become a juggernaut, dismembering local districts even as the towns embrace smart-growth in their town centers. The ironies abound. As the commercial center gets denser, the close-knit community culture around the schools – the games, the assemblies, the performances, charity drives – gets harder and harder to maintain until it evaporates.

As goes the school, so goes the community. We could make a comparison to what happened to small towns across the nation, as commerce followed the easiest access to transportation. The demise of small downtowns, bypassed by interstates, is a familiar story.

Schools are a kind of infrastructure, as important as roads, bridges and electricity. Each upcoming generation they educate is an asset, as well. Vermont officials and the Chamber of Commerce fear the state is being drained of middle-class taxpayers of childbearing age. Yet Act 46, in resulting in the inevitable closure of local schools, accomplishes the very thing they fear. More people create economic health; when people move out, towns dwindle into economic deserts serving bedroom neighborhoods, retirement complexes and tourists. Without the market town, farms struggle. Resort towns become ever more dependent on and vulnerable to “visitor numbers,” which as we have experienced directly, come and go like schools of fish in the ocean.

We have known all this for decades. Let’s put our knowledge to use. Ludlow and other towns are putting up a valiant fight to keep their communities together. Let’s see the Legislature do the same.

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