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The Commons
Photo 1

Courtesy photo/Commons file

In 2012, the 12 students of the two-classroom Westminster West School joined in a circle with parents and faculty to celebrate the first day of winter.

Voices / Viewpoint

The quarter-million-dollar closing of the Westminster West School

The Westminster West School was unsustainable, and it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep it open — a fiasco that highlights the need for Act 46 today

Dan Axtell, a programmer, served on the Westminster School Board from 1998 to 2014.

Originally published in The Commons issue #433 (Wednesday, November 8, 2017). This story appeared on page D1.



Three years ago, the Westminster School Board was going to vote to close the Westminster West School. I was at the center of the scandal and quit the school board a few weeks later.

The school eventually had to close just as I had warned, but only after costing an extra quarter million dollars to keep it awkwardly open for two additional years.

This all happened before Act 46 was even proposed, but the story highlights the need for Act 46 today.

Twenty years ago, Claire Oglesby, the longtime and widely admired Westminster West teacher, encouraged me to run for an open seat on the town school board. She taught my children, and no one else was running. I served 16{1/2} years.

Three accomplishments stand out for me, and all matter in this story.

1. In 2001, I spearheaded the $130,000 renovation of the Westminster West School, acting as the board liaison to get the bond passed and working with the state to get the 30-percent state construction aid. I was a big booster of the little school.

2. In 2010, I organized the subcommittee to address the perennial questioning of maintaining two elementary schools in town. The subcommittee sought compromise and concluded that the board would support having two schools as long as the enrollment at Westminster West was at least 20.

3. In 2013, I spearheaded the Middle School Study Committee to finally come up with a plan for providing seventh and eighth grades. Since 1971, when middle school was last provided in Westminster, there has been no plan to plan to provide middle-school education to residents.

The School Board has never endorsed middle school choice and has never successfully designed a plan. As a result, the board must do whatever state law dictates. Currently, that means providing tuition money for any student who has any claim to residency in Westminster.

There is no assurance that a student will be accepted by any school at all — or accepted back for eighth grade after a seventh-grade year. There was no control of the education provided by the various middle schools or of the cost. The 2013 committee was going to finally design a middle-school plan that addressed the needs of Westminster students and give some local control to our town.

* * *

With that background, we come back to October 2014. It was an ordinary budget committee meeting — the first of several planned to develop a budget recommendation to the whole Westminster School Board. It was just like the previous years.

As usual, the first step was the principal’s report of the latest enrollment estimates, which would determine the number of teachers needed.

To my surprise and disappointment, the forecast showed a steep drop in Westminster West enrollment based on reliable counts of preschool students. The principal confirmed that consolidating our two elementary schools would still allow for small class sizes and reduce teaching staff by one. Keeping the Westminster West School open would create a crowded grades 2-3 classroom there, as well as an awkwardly small kindergarden–grade 1 class, where a child might be the only one of the same age and sex.

In any case, the enrollment would predictably drop below 20 in 2017 with no indication of rebounding.

Then-Principal Tullar mentioned something confidentially: There were no Special Education students at the Westminster West School. That is, no children with learning disabilities attended the small school. Most noticeably, there were no emotional/behavioral disabilities.

The school board had unwittingly created institutionalized segregation based on disability. It wasn’t clear how this had happened, but it was clear that children with learning disabilities were concentrated in the Center School classrooms.

It saddened me to think of it, but it was undeniable. The Westminster West School was unsustainable and it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep it open. I could see that, once the voters fully understood the situation, they were not going to vote to maintain an unsustainable, expensive, segregated school.

I was probably right about that, but we’ll never know, because the whole school board was soon silenced.

* * *

I knew that my neighbors in Westminster West would be angry when they heard the news, but I didn’t expect formal legal action by a freelance lawyer that effectively gagged the school board. It was a clever and innovative use of the Vermont Open Meeting Law that kept the school board members silent and the voters uninformed.

I call it the Wailin’ Stratagem, because you need to wail long and loud about a technical violation of the Open Meeting Law so that people believe something nefarious was going on and also so that the school board’s lawyer insists that all members stop talking about the issues listed in the formal complaint.

Here are the steps in the Wailin’ Stratagem:

• Find a violation of the Open Meeting Law. This isn’t hard. For instance, the Westminster School Board was a week late in posting the Oct. 17, 2017 minutes in flagrant violation of the law. That would work. In fact, the websites of all the supervisory unions in the county show some technical violations in the last months.

As was the case in October 2014, these violations are careless, but have no effect on the issues and decisions of the school board.

• Here’s the most important part: Do not contact anyone on the board about your complaint. If you do, the board, will, of course, be responsive and try to address the problem without involving lawyers.

Instead, start with the most litigious and expensive formal action. The board will have to consult with a $240-per-hour lawyer. The lawyer will tell the board members not to discuss the issues in the formal complaint. Now the newspapers will print your side of the controversy and the board will look impotent and sheepish, saying only: “No comment.”

• Accuse the board of discussing and deciding issues outside of a public meeting. The board can’t prove that they didn’t improperly discuss matters outside of a meeting. Now the inconsequential violation of the Open Meeting Law seems much more serious.

4. For good measure, discredit the board members with something a little bit libelous. This strengthens your position and the board member will be too focused on resolving the complaint to fuss about a little defamation. I was accused in the complaint of secretly wanting to close the Westminster West School — utterly untrue, of course, but reason enough to cast doubt on anything I said.

(The full complaint from 2014 is available online at danaxtell.com/publicdocs.)

After I quit, the board was pressured into including $120,000 extra in the budget even though a majority of its members was still against the expense. At Town Meeting 2015, an effort to take the money out of the budget failed. Predictably, the board was silent during the discussion, even when someone mistakenly said that the Board supports the higher budget.

The board never explained that the school would have to close in 2017 regardless. The issue of disability segregation never came up.

The era of direct democracy with an informed electorate in the Westminster School District pretty much ended that day — and Act 46 had nothing to do with it.

The next year, the extra $120,000 was included in the budget with no fuss and no acknowledgement that it was an educationally optional expense. It made me feel foolish for the months it took to document and justify the $130,000 expense for renovating the Westminster West School in 2001.

The total spent for the two extra years topped a quarter million dollars on June 21, 2016. At the board meeting, the superintendent explained that the board needed to hire a special-education teacher for nine hours a week at the Westminster West School. (That minimal service made it public information that there were still no students with high-impact learning disabilities at the school.)

It was impossible to hire a licensed teacher for only nine hours a week, so the school board, in an extraordinary scene just at the end of the meeting, voted to pad the salary by $20,000 to make it nominally half-time.

* * *

What does this unfortunate story have to do with Act 46, the 2015 school governance consolidation law?

The Vermont Agency of Education (AOE) has no authority to stop a school board’s wasteful spending of Education Fund money and has no authority to prevent a school board from operating segregated schools. However, Act 46 now gives the AOE the power to dissolve an inequitable school district in 2019 and assign the town to a consolidated school district. Based on what Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe thoroughly explained two years ago, that’s a likely result for Westminster.

On Nov. 4, 2015, Secretary Holcombe came to Westminster to explain Act 46 and answer questions. She emphasized that the law was designed to save the Education Fund.

Some towns, she noted, get two-thirds of their budget from the Education Fund and only one-third from residents (a clear reference to Westminster). When such a town votes for optional spending, it puts a big strain on the Education Fund (Westminster, again).

The secretary even compared it to the “Tragedy of the Commons.”

So, this is how the AOE sees Westminster: as marauding cows on the Town Green eating more than our share of the grass and ruining it for everyone.

Holcombe also explained that alternative structures needed to be equitable, cost-effective, and sustainable. Westminster School Board members told her that the town’s status quo was working well for the town and the state should let them be.

With visible frustration, she pointed to the screen that clearly stated that the district just needs to document that it is equitable, cost-effective, and sustainable and then the state will let them be.

She noted that with Act 46, school districts will need to expand their notion of community to include all students, from those in pre-kindergarden to seniors attending the local high school.

If an alternative-structure district wants to spend more than the other towns (as Westminster does), the board has to show that it’s the best use of money anywhere in the PreK-12 community. Westminster appears to be thoroughly ineligible for an alternative structure.

* * *

The Westminster School Board might not acknowledge the problems with its operation, but the AOE knows exactly what’s going on in Westminster.

They know about learning-disability segregation and they know that Westminster still has no plan for middle-school students, having abandoned the Middle School Study Committee with no public explanation. They know that high-needs special-education students don’t get middle-school choice.

The School Board has said that Act 46 offers no significant savings, but the AOE has the Act 46 Study Committee’s report (available on wnesu.org) that found more than $300,000 in annual savings could be realized by ending middle-school tuitioning.

The lack of information from the Westminster School Board — going as far as not providing any enrollment numbers at Town Meeting this year — highlights perhaps the biggest benefit of Act 46.

With only four school boards in the county, newspapers will be able to have beat reporters for school board meetings. Until about 2003, a reporter would come to meetings and also call me and ask what other issues that might not have come up at the meeting.

A reporter can report things that school board members are not allowed to say but need to be said (a point that got me into a heap of trouble in 2014). In order to have a well informed electorate, we need beat reporters who ask about what issues will be coming up and also what issues are being ignored.

There is nothing “large” or “mega” about the Act 46 school districts by any standard — and the AOE knows this. In fact, a school district designed around one high school’s catchment area is the smallest conceivable size of a school district in most of the country. When people use those alarming words, they are effectively admitting that they have an outdated notion of school governance.

Act 46 means that the one school district will take continuous responsibility for students as they progress from preschool to graduation.

And Act 46 means we will get more effective oversight of the activities of that school board.

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