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Are union schools the answer for Vermont?

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Graduation was more than a day of diplomas for Champlain Valley Union High School seniors. This commencement was the school's 50th. All CVU graduates were invited back to help mark the occasion.

"Physically the changes have been unbelievably dramatic," said Christine O'Donnell, a social studies teacher at CVU.

O'Donnell has seen the school grow and change firsthand. She started her career there in 1975, and dug through the archives for the 50th celebration.

"The thing that surprised me the most-- I didn't realize how quickly it got out of control," O'Donnell said with a laugh. "They were starting school without school buses, there were 10 teachers, we had to hire 10 more teachers right away, and I was like whoa!"

CVU was one of the first union schools in the state. A wave of consolidations swept Vermont in the mid-1960s, helped by legislation letting communities combine their efforts. Communities facing dropping enrollments or the opposite-- the prospect of pricey school expansions as their towns grew-- chose to join forces, and often to bus students to new union high schools. Vermont now has about 40 union school districts.

One of the biggest advocates for bringing Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne, St. George and Williston high school students under one roof was former Lieutenant Governor Barbara Snelling.

"By reading it she was everything, truly remarkable," O'Donnell said.

Back in the early 1960s Snelling was not in office, she was a mom with four kids. Daughter Diane remembers piling into the station wagon to visit farms-- possible sites for the school—and how busy her mom was then working to convince people to give up community schools and pool resources.

"There was a fair amount of tension. It was clear that this was a difficult thing for people to talk about, it wasn't an easy conversation," said Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden County.

Reporter Kristin Kelly: There was some tension at the time?

Brian Harwood: There was.

Longtime radio broadcaster Brian Harwood remembers the debates in the mid-60s when Waterbury and Waitsfield opted to scrap their smaller outdated high schools and join other communities in the Mad River Valley to create Harwood Union High School. It is named after his dad, a popular family doctor.

Harwood heard the same arguments again this year as state leaders debated consolidating school districts, in part to cut administrative costs.

"What's similar is that there is an efficiency to be gained by creating a larger, that was one of the oppositional factors, was- it's going to be too big, we're going to lose all our own local control over what happens in the classroom. And it's similar to what's going on now, even though quite honestly I think this consolidation of school districts is going to happen anyway," Harwood said.

"I think a wave of change has to happen," Snelling said. "I mean people are just very upset about their property taxes."

Diane Snelling sees some similarities between then and now, too: rising school costs, frustrated taxpayers and residents with a lot of different opinions. But she's not convinced that consolidating school districts is the only or best answer.

"I think we have to do something, but whether that particular proposal is the right one, I don't know," Snelling said. "And I think it's very much about now we talk about it as consolidation, as opposed to how can we improve the educational experience? Because I think that should be the real goal."

"I think that whether or not we choose to, we are in a process of transition," Vt. Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe said.

Holcombe says pressures on districts-- both schools and taxpayers-- are forcing change already. The House bill to consolidate districts did not become law, but she says it sparked an important conversation.

"The question for Vermont and for all of our schools is are we going to change intentionally-- because we've sat down, we've planned and intentionally built the schools we want for our children that prepare them for the 21st century? Or is it going to happen to us over a process of transition?" Holcombe said.

The House bill would have consolidated the state's 273 school districts down to about 55 in a couple of years, ultimately cutting top level administrative jobs and school boards, but not necessarily closing schools. In the late 1990s Holcombe was a school official, helping create the Rivendell Union School District that straddles the Connecticut River.

"There were some perceptions and stereotypes we really had to work through to understand that really all of the parents in all of those towns were deeply invested in the same things for their children," Holcombe said.

CVU had a scrappy start 50 years ago and some growing pains along the way.

"There was a sense of we're all in this together, and that's always stayed with us I think," O'Donnell said.

The school burst at the seams from Day One, allowed smoking inside for a time, taught students in so-called "temporary" classrooms for 20 years, but now boasts strong community support, airy spaces, top-notch athletic facilities and graduates ready to leap to the next phase of their lives.

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