David Clark: The Agency of Education's vision of a single school district

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Much like Joan of Arc, Dan French has had a vision. Regrettably, instead of lifting a siege, the secretary of education's vision of a single school district for the State of Vermont appears more likely to be intended as a complete takeover. It's off to a pretty good start because the Agency of Education has already taken several steps, some of them dubiously legal, and some of them not at all, to begin that takeover.

Lola Duffort, writing in Vermont Digger on Jan. 10, blew the lid off it last week in her remarkable story about the secretary's "Visions" That's a story you can bet your bottom dollar was never supposed to see the light of day.

The legal skirmish lines have already been formed, and 31 school districts, five select boards, one planning board and a dozen or so impacted citizens have gone to court to make the argument that a couple of state agencies, the AOE and the state Board of Education have no legal right to overturn the results of duly warned and held local elections that produced results which were contrary to the expectations of those agencies. So AOE and the state board have decided to just go ahead and seize these schools' assets for a dollar and, at the same time, harness them with the bonded indebtedness of other schools in other communities, and they intend to do it without so much as a head nod toward the basic constitutional protections of due process.

It's something Kim Jong Il could be proud of.

Meanwhile, down here where the heavy hand of our putative overloads is being keenly felt, we're still trying to do the things we need to do to meet our statutory obligations to our communities and schoolchildren. However, this is proving to be a little bit difficult just at the moment. A few weeks ago, when I wrote about the chaos that the Act 46 forced school mergers were creating in the midst of school budgeting season, it was not yet apparent that the Agency of Education would be taking actual steps to deliberately sabotage that process by running a classic hidden ball trick. It works like this.

There are two parts to building a budget, calculating your likely expenses and estimating your revenues. Because of the countless number of variables that the statewide property tax formula has created, school business managers need to access that revenue data from the Agency of Education, and because AOE is no longer feeling constrained by the rule of law, it's playing by its own rules now. To use my district as an example, by combining the revenue information for the Athens, Grafton and Westminster school districts, which the state board has slated for an Act 46 forced merger, it's no longer possible to make those calculations for the individual school districts.

Pretty clever, isn't it ?

In the Lakeview School District, which is the Craftsbury, Greensboro, and Hardwick region, the business manager has informed the Greensboro School Board chair that, "I have received very direct guidance from AOE today (Jan. 11). It was clear that we are NOT to create individual budgets for districts involved in mergers."

School budgeting information is a critical public asset, not a poker chip to be played. The Agency of Education is running this play in direct defiance of the law. But it all fits neatly together in Dan French's vision for an easily managed, top-down education bureaucracy, the juiciest parts of which will undoubtedly end up for sale to the highest bidder or the coziest crony or some combination thereof.

There's still enough time to do something about it, but it's a small window. Or you can kick back and relax while a very determined force continues to undermine the bedrock of Vermont democracy and gut the living organism, which are the schools, and our small Vermont communities.

David M. Clark, of Westminster, is a member of the school boards for Bellows Falls Union High School, River Valley Tech Center and the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, of which he is chair. He is also an organizer with the Alliance of Vermont School Board Members.


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