‘An insular, bulldozer-like approach’

The WSESU Act 46 Study Committee was unwilling to consider any other options than a full merger; options that might (or might not) better meet the needs of the children in the region were off the table

We have had the opportunity to review the video of the Vermont State Board of Education's latest meeting wherein the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Study Committee and administration's delegation presented its merger draft for approval.

Watching the video was extremely distressing. The lack of honesty and the ad hominem attacks on those who see things differently, particularly from those who are bearers of a public trust, were particularly troubling.

Lest you dismiss this as another disgruntled objection to Act 46, please know that it comes from a large group of citizens who have been working hard to accomplish the goals of the act in our district.

* * *

Contrary to what was represented to the board, there has been virtually no opportunity for public participation in the study committee's process. There have been brief token periods at the outset or end of the meetings for public comments, most of which (as is clear in the video record) were studiously ignored.

The administration and study committee have been clear from the outset that putting together articles for a merger was the committee's work and that it intended to carry out that work on its own.

Unlike in many other districts, no consultant was hired to assist with a community process and dialogue and with helping us understand the variety of ways to work with the act.

Indeed, the notion of greater community input or participation, which has been robust in other districts, was rejected in favor of an insular, bulldozer-like approach, for which discussion was with the committee's lawyer and with Montpelier, but not with people who live in the communities involved.

To the extent that there has been communication with the greater public, it has been primarily one-way, with the committee and administration presenting its work.

The committee was clear as well that it was unwilling to consider any other options than a full merger; options that might (or might not) better meet the needs of the children in the region were off the table.

In addition, the characterization of those who disagree with the committee as being more focused on adult needs than the needs of our children is, at best, absurd and disrespectful and, at worst, disgraceful.

Reasonable people can disagree, and one hopes, in a democracy, that all voices will be respected. To wrap oneself in the flag of “I'm the one who cares most about the children, and if you challenge me, then you do not” is an old and tired stance and ultimately is simple demagoguery.

The study committee and central office administration could just as easily be accused of putting an obvious power grab before the needs of the students. Rather, it is likely that they believe that what they are proposing is better for them.

* * *

When you get all your information from one source, your understanding will be limited. When the State Board of Education gets its information only from administrators and study committees, then it gets a somewhat warped view.

Despite what was presented, many of those who are looking at other solutions in addition to considering a merger, support the goals of the act and are deeply committed to the well being of the students of the WSESU.

Many are educators who have devoted their lives to working with children. Their stance comes from a deeply held belief - supported by their own experience and a substantial body of research - that children fare best in caring environments, environments where their local communities have and feel a stake in their well-being and involve themselves in their lives.

Nowhere is this adult commitment to children's nurturance and growth better seen, encouraged, and expressed than in a community's school - with the emphasis on the word “community's.” The deeper and more local the community's ownership (in the various senses of the term) of the school and its operation, the closer, deeper, and more more-clearly felt (by those children) that caring is. Children who come from such environments develop a confidence and resiliency that are fundamental building blocks and precursors of well-being later in life.

Members of the Vermont State Board of Education, or our administrators, or our study committee may disagree, which is fine. That should not be taken to mean that you care more for your adult agenda than you do for the well-being of children.

* * *

Finally, it should be pointed out that the conduct of the committee has created substantial divisiveness in a large region that has had a remarkable history of cooperation on all levels of the educational process. Indeed, that very divisiveness is reflected in the comments discussed above.

Rather than treat other points of view as just that, community members are treated, and described, as “opposition,” as “naysaying,” as expressing “a refusal to accept Act 46,” as having “other agendas,” and with personal attacks.

Sadly, despite outright pleas not to create such polarization and bad feeling, the committee has done just that.

In addition, the state Board of Education had the option, on hearing about the “opposition,” to question the process engaged upon by the committee or to encourage greater participation. Instead, the attitude reflected in the comment that there's opposition, so “you have your work cut out for you” just encourages that very polarization.

Whatever the outcome, it will take years to heal. And yet again, kids getting what they need will be the less for it.

Thank you for your attention.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates