A ‘perfect storm’ could change America’s public schools for years to come

Consider it a lesson in civic engagement.

On an overcast morning in late April, a small group of students gathers outside Vergennes Union High School. They wave signs reading “We are Vermont’s future” and “Vote yes! It’s for the best.” When passing motorists honk, a chorus of hoots follows. 

Two failed school budget proposals, layoff notices sent to staff, and potential program cuts have brought them here. Most students can’t vote, nor do they pay property taxes. Yet the complex – and contentious – world of school finance policy is suddenly hitting closer to home.

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Fewer students and higher costs mean school districts are considering everything from mass layoffs to widespread school closures. How can tough decisions be made while protecting a community’s sense of common good?

If the Addison Northwest School District’s third proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year fails to garner community members’ approval, what will happen to their teachers? Or to band and foreign language programs?

“As I’m thinking about applying to colleges, it’s really scary to think I might not have these opportunities,” says Quincy Sabick, a sophomore who serves as a nonvoting student representative on the school board.

In U.S. school systems, springtime brings more than just standardized testing and graduations. It’s also when leaders craft and seek approval for district budgets, which can range from the low millions to several billion dollars. This year it has been messy. 

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