Many school board members around the state, discontent with state education policy, believe they have been sold out by the organization that is supposed to represent their interests.
As a result, they are forming a new organization with the hope it will give voice to the views of school board members who have not been willing to buy in to the party line.
The new group is called the Alliance of Vermont School Board Members. Members of the new group say that the Vermont School Boards Association has become a vehicle for policy emanating from Montpelier, rather than a voice for school boards or their actual members.
One cause for unhappiness among school board members is Act 46, the school consolidation law, which is causing school boards across the state to explore ways to merge districts and consolidate school governance. It is a bitter irony, in the eyes of some school board members, that the Vermont School Boards Association has supported policy that is causing the demise of Vermont school boards.
Another cause for unhappiness is the push by Gov. Phil Scott to seize control of negotiations over teachers’ health care benefits. The fact that the Vermont School Boards Association favors Scott’s plans is indicative to the dissenters of the association’s willingness to undermine local school boards in favor of state authority over the schools.
That a clash has erupted among school board members ref lects how governance of our schools has evolved over the years, leading to a potent political clash pitting state power against local power. As education has become more bureaucratically encumbered, governance of our schools has become ever more complicated. Superintendents have gained significant power, and school boards are usually happy to defer to them, letting the central office take on more and more responsibility.
As central offices have taken on more power, a caste of education professionals, mostly dedicated to the good of Vermont’s schools, has been in the driver’s seat. Vermont’s schools are highly ranked, and it’s owing in part to the professionalism of our educational leaders.
But it is an unwieldy structure. In many districts, superintendents must deal with a half dozen or more separate boards. The school consolidation law might have been called the give-your-superintendent a-night-off law. Merging a half dozen boards into one, by abolishing school boards in the diverse towns of a supervisory union, made organizational sense.
But the push for passage of Act 46 was a dishonest enterprise. Former Gov. Peter Shumlin promised he would not impose a top-down solution, but it was his intention to do so the whole time. His education secretary, Rebecca Holcombe, spoke of holding open and respectful conversations about options for schools, but behind the kind words the Agency of Education held in reserve a hammer to force compliance to the demand for consolidation.
In some districts, consolidation was a natural, and it has proceeded apace. But in many parts of the state neither board members nor voters want to abolish their boards or close their schools, and they resent the coercion of the state and the bureaucratic doubletalk used to smooth the way.
The Vermont School Boards Association is the vehicle of those boards that, in alliance with the superintendents, are happy to speed Vermont along the way toward top-heavy superboards and shuttered small town schools. They have the best intentions and think they know best. Many of the good professionals who leading Vermont’s high-quality schools are part of the effort.
But a lot of school board members believe they have been abandoned. They remain loyal to their local communities and respectful of the ties that exists between voters and local schools, through local school boards. That’s why they have formed a new organization.
Vermont’s educational structure is unwieldy, but Vermont teachers have done a good job anyway. Changes are appropriate in some places, where small schools are no longer affordable and where educational opportunities have dwindled. But the professional caste needs to remind itself that local education in Vermont is grounded in local democracy, woven into the life of the state’s communities. The new voice for state school board members is providing that reminder.