Not the Vermont I know

The Act 46 process illustrates the blatant disregard by government officials for the intent of the Legislature, the will of voters, and the goodwill and expertise of school boards following the rules

WESTMINSTER — Somehow, amidst all the national news on threats to our democracy, actions in Vermont to force mergers of school districts under the guise of Act 46 seem to be going under the radar.

The legislative intent of the original Act 46 was clear - the bill offered incentives for districts to “voluntarily” merge and directed a process for districts to form study committees to look at options to more effectively meet goals of equity, transparency, and efficiency.

The legislation clearly recognized no one solution for all districts, as it required citizens to vote on any plan and offered a process for proposing Alternative Governance Structures (AGS) where merging might not be the best way to achieve the stated goals.

As the AOE fact sheet on Act 46 states, “Act 46 acknowledges that the means to achieve the goals will vary depending on the specific circumstances of the school district or the region.”

Our district, like almost all throughout the state, engaged in the legislated process in all good faith and followed the rules delineated for us.

We joined a supervisory-union-wide study committee, only to be told later that this committee could only “study” merger options and couldn't consider any other approaches to achieve the goal.

The study committee developed a merger plan, soundly rejected by voters in three of the four districts in our supervisory union.

These districts then worked together to develop an AGS proposal that addressed the goals of efficiency, equity, and transparency in a manner that worked for our region and its various parameters that would make other arrangements highly inefficient.

Even though the secretary of education's initial plan approved our proposal, the State Board of Education rejected it (along with almost every other AGS proposal) despite the will of voters or the proposals' substance.

* * *

This is an appalling example of bureaucratic elitism with an unelected body overriding the votes of individual communities, ostensibly under the belief that “we know what's best for you.”

This is not how government is supposed to work - certainly not in Vermont, with our long tradition of Town Meeting and participatory democracy.

An incumbent who loses an election does not get to stay in office because she thinks she is a better legislator and the voters just didn't understand it. There is little evidence that mergers always provide savings or better educational outcomes, but even if this evidence exists, in our democracy we abide by the will of the citizenry, whether or not it is the “best” alternative they choose.

There are many reasons mergers may not be the best model for many districts in the state, and there are other governance structures that might be more efficient and transparent and equitable in some places.

But ultimately the issues raised by the Act 46 process are less about particular school-governance models than the blatant disregard by government officials for the intent of the elected Legislature, the will of voters, and the goodwill and expertise of local boards dutifully following the prescribed rules.

The overreach by the SBE and AOE is another example of centralizing power farther away from our citizens and our local communities, on whose involvement the quality of our schools, in particular, depend.

Pushing power farther and farther away from our local citizens will hurt our schools, our children, our communities, and most significantly, our democratic values that are the heart of our state and nation.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates