Viewpoint: An existential crisis


It feels like Vermont is facing an existential crisis. Can our 250 small towns survive a world that is managed by algorithms and spreadsheets? These small communities are the heart and soul of our state. Can we still afford them?

I think the answer is an emphatic “Yes” if we have the courage to make some changes.

What makes our small towns special doesn’t cost money:

  • The land that we cherish and protect.
  • The places we gather: the dump, the gas station, a restaurant, a park.
  • 250 years of history.
  • The stories and characters that enrich our lives.
  • Town meetings.

It’s the service providers that cost so much money and drive up our taxes: police protection, fire protection, emergency medical services, even road maintenance. These services could and should be regionalized. Let the computers tell us how to procure these services in the most efficient manner. Our sense of community is not dependent on the services we purchase.

And then there are the schools.

It’s true that our state population is smaller than a single school district in many states and we need to find efficiencies. It’s also true that our small, local schools are critical elements of our communities. But with some creativity and courage, we don’t have to choose one truth over the other.

From age 2 to 7, our children should attend small local schools. This is not childcare; it’s not education. These are the years of exploration and discovery – learning to love learning. The younger the child, the closer they should be to home and parents. Save the small local schools for the smallest children.

“Education” is for ages 8 to 15 when students are exposed to the full breadth of current knowledge: sciences, arts, humanities, languages, math, technology. A liberal arts education in the truest sense. These schools are larger and more regional so to provide the facilities and skills required.

At age 16, students begin to prepare for adulthood and the choices are infinite – apprenticeships with Vermont businesses and non-profits, life skills for those ready to join the work force, focused academic studies for professional degrees, technical training and certification in any of the “trades,” and business management for the entrepreneurs.  This “preparation” can take place in classrooms, tech centers, the workplace or at home and should be available to anyone ready to begin or change a career.

Vermonters have always valued and invested wisely in education. We have the schools. We have the teachers. We have the transportation. This wonderful education infrastructure shouldn’t be dismantled…  It should be maximized, all year long.

Regionalization should not be feared. Applied intelligently, it is how we can preserve the small and local identities we all cherish. We need to be smart and we need to be brave, just as Vermont has been so often in the past. Freedom and Unity!

Will Patten is lifelong Vermonter, retired business executive and owner of the Hinesburgh Public House.

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