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School mergers seen as barrier in rural economy

According to the nearly three dozen witnesses who testified at a Nov. 7 hearing of the state’s Rural Development Caucus, Vermont’s small towns are losing population, have unreliable internet, fewer job opportunities, higher transportation costs and a smaller tax base that makes paying for essential services difficult. Despite these challenges, they said, Vermont’s small towns offer an unmatched quality of life and are ready to make the investments needed to welcome new business and create new jobs.The hearing, organized with support from House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, and the Vermont Council on Rural Development, was held to help lawmakers determine what Vermonters think are the most significant factors impacting Vermont’s rural economy.“The economies and economic development challenges of rural areas are different from those of more densely populated parts of the state,” said Rep. Chip Conquest, of Newbury, cochairman of the caucus. Co-chairwoman Rep. Laura Sibilia, of Dover, agreed. “While we have our own experience and ideas, we know there is knowledge and insight along the back roads that will help us improve legislation and enact better policies,” she said.Act 46, a state law whose purpose is for school districts to work toward mergers with neighboring districts, and could result in the closure of some schools, dominated much of the two-plus-hour discussion.

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