Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bran Towbin, the Plainfield Selectboard chair and road commissioner who is running for the Washington 6 state representative seat. He also is owner of a wholesale flower farm in Plainfield.
The towns of Calais, Worcester and Middlesex have wonderful elementary schools by any measure. This is due to the dedication of administrators and a caring community. One board member crawled into the attic to personally install insulation to save taxpayer dollars. Calais and Worcester have managed to produce these results by fully repaying loans, there is no debt on their books. How has Montpelier rewarded this extraordinary record of accomplishment? By trying to disband their local boards and raising the possibilities that these schools will be closed due to inefficiency. It’s called Act 46.
On paper, this law tries to address five critical problems: provide equity in education, help students exceed standards, maximize operational efficiencies, promote transparency and accountability, and deliver taxpayer value. The approach is to centralize power via forced consolidation. The smaller school boards would be replaced by larger regional boards with membership based on population; the more residents, the more representation. In this scenario one could easily see smaller towns being outvoted and having their local schools closed in the effort to create “efficiencies.”
One would think this would be a “win” for larger schools. Strangely the Berlin School Board, one of the largest in the district consisting of Berlin, Calais, Worcester, East Montpelier and Middlesex, is dropping out. I asked Carl Parton, a seasoned school board member, why they’re abandoning the process? To paraphrase his response, “Well I was excited about Act 46’s goals, but when you look at the actual effects of the law, the result is zero for five in terms of accomplishment.” His concerns are not only that his school would lose control, but that the debt of the other towns would be forced on his local taxpayers. This fear was echoed by other districts. Under the new rubric, Berlin, Worcester and Calais would subsidize Middlesex and East Montpelier. This policy seems to metaphorically sanction robbing from the poor to pay the rich. Not surprisingly, East Montpelier, with a whopping $8.17 million note, may be more keen on the process. It is interesting that Montpelier is insulated from the internecine school conflict as their student population excludes them from having to consider the “preferred education government structure.” This is the actual jargon listed in the law betraying the bias lawmakers have baked into the process. This is a legislative ruse to give the appearance of not forcing a solution. The law READS as if there is another way forward. Towns have the possibilities of creating “alternative solutions.” The problem is that the hardworking, overburdened school boards must jump through so many hoops that the possibility of taking other paths is an illusion.
Vermont values, however, are rooted in small towns. The Legislature needs to do the arduous work of speaking plainly to plain folks. In the end taxpayers are going to know the truth.
The Legislature, combined with Gov. Shumlin’s cheerleading, sold this bill as a fix to rising school costs and uncomfortable choices. The governor told tales of smaller, inefficient schools with poor outcomes. There are probably cases where that exists and Act 46 is a remedy. In the Calais School District the law exacerbates problems, rather than creating solutions. The ugly specter of town vs. town is unleashed with good neighbors turning against one another. Accusations will fly that each community is acting selfishly rather than considering the best interests of our children. The cause of this strife is a badly written law with a misguided, albeit well intentioned, cookie-cutter approach to problem solving. It will wreak havoc.
The Golden Dome has been in the habit of creating legislative fixes that try to smooth the rough edges of a democratic process only to foment rancor at the local level. The temptation is understandable for lawmakers and administrators. Why deal with troublesome school boards when you can dictate policy via superintendents and the Agency of Education? This mirrors the unfortunate inclusion of small towns in the Act 64 water cleanup bill. Municipal road foremen aren’t known to be a political juggernaut and can easily be coerced into doing a great deal of expensive dirty work.
Vermont values, however, are rooted in small towns. The Legislature needs to do the arduous work of speaking plainly to plain folks. In the end taxpayers are going to know the truth. There are difficult decisions to be made. There are difficult conversations to be had. It is understandable that consolidation of power is attractive to people who want solutions. Sadly we need to recognize that squelching small voices leads to bigger problems. We all respect the work of credentialed officials and those with doctorates in education. The taxpayer, however, gives more deference to the school board member installing the insulation in the attic. Those people can’t be left silently standing in the corner. Their children are in those classrooms. Their tax dollars are being spent. They don’t need a lecture about the process. They need to be driving the discussion. That is the Vermont preferred solution.