The Alliance In The News

 

Administration’s memo envisions
single school district for Vermont

By Lola Duffort Jan 10, 2019

 

Dan French is the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Vermont’s school district consolidation law, Act 46, may have been the state’s most controversial school reform in decades. But an internal government document suggests the state’s top education official believes it hasn’t gone nearly far enough.

In a draft policy memo dated Jan. 1, administration officials, led by Education Secretary Dan French, outline a radical idea for Vermont’s schools. In it, they suggest consolidating all school districts into one, abolishing the State Board of Education, and establishing four regional administrative entities, each with its own school board and superintendent, to oversee schools in the area.

Under this system, according to the document, titled “Designing our Future: A Blueprint for Transforming Vermont’s Education System,” students would have universal public and private school choice. Budgets would be developed by regional superintendents and submitted to the secretary of education, who would create an overall education budget. That budget would then go before the General Assembly, which would have the final say over how much money schools receive. Regional school boards, with the approval of the secretary, would decide whether to close schools.

According to the memo, an “education policy design team” was formed in fall 2018 to design a “policy blueprint” for reform efforts. Its members included the secretaries of Commerce and Community Development, Digital Services, Education and Human Services, the commissioner of Labor, and staff from the governor’s office.

For context, the document repeats oft-repeated concerns – in particular, by Gov. Phil Scott – about Vermont’s schools. It cites statistics about steadily declining enrollments, rising costs, and the state’s extremely low staff-to-student ratio.

“Vermont’s education delivery will need to adapt to the current demographic context to be successful,” the document states. “We will need to redesign an education delivery system not just make incremental adjustments.”

The document was not publicly available and was leaked to VTDigger. Officials with the governor’s office and the agency acknowledged the document existed and that such conversations had occurred, but hastened to add that there were no plans yet to propose such a reform.

Rebecca Kelley, the governor’s spokesperson, said the document was not a “policy paper” but instead a “conversation fielder.”

And Ted Fisher, an agency spokesperson, said the document – and a follow-up expected out Friday – should not be considered “policy proposals” but “collaborative efforts to imagine a new system focused on quality and equity.”

“The secretary is leading a visioning process to reimagine the future structure of our education system,” Fisher said. “This is a strategic exercise internal to the Agency of Education designed to surface opportunities to create a more coherent and integrated approach to delivering education and related human services.”

Fisher added that a second version of the document would be ready on Friday with “significant updates, more developed policy proposals and additional materials,” and he offered to share that document publicly then.

State Board of Education Chair Krista Huling said she hadn’t seen the document and didn’t feel comfortable commenting until she had read it. Bill Mathis, the board’s vice chair, said he also hadn’t seen it and that it was “disconcerting” that discussion on the subject had gone as far as it had without wider input and a more public process.

“This comes as a surprise and government should not have surprises,” he said.

The document itself appears to explain why so few people were involved in its development, by way of a discussion on the difference between a “representative” and “design” strategy. A representative strategy, it states, “is often used when a solution to a problem already exists, and when affirmation of stakeholder values or current practices supersedes the need for change.”

A design strategy, meanwhile, “is more useful when there is a need to create a new policy solution.” In that case, “a small design team is assembled with the goal of rapidly creating a viable design prototype.”

Legislative leaders said they had gotten wind, secondhand, of discussions of a statewide school district, but then been reassured by French that conversations were entirely theoretical and would not be brought forward during the legislative session.

Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, the new chair of the House Education committee, said French had characterized the conversations as “futuristic thinking.”

“It wasn’t anything that he was interested in pursuing at this point,” she said.

Webb said she had heard a white paper existed on the subject but that she hadn’t seen it or had access to it.

“The secretary is really thinking about a future of education. I guess it would be my hope that it would be a very distant future,” she added.

Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, the chair of the Senate Education committee, also said he had been assured that a statewide school district was, at this point, simply a “thought experiment.”

“He’s new. He’s trying his best to think things through from the beginning, as opposed to coming in and just patching up the tires. So I give him credit for that,” he said.

 

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Pownal School Board votes to join Act 46 lawsuit

By Patricia LeBoeuf, Bennington Banner

Posted Wednesday, January 9, 2019 7:42 pm

POWNAL — The Pownal School Board signaled its intention at a meeting Tuesday night to join a high-profile Act 46 lawsuit, spelling confusion as the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union begins preparations for a merger of elementary districts ordered to take effect by July 1.

The board voted unanimously, with member Todd Steinhoff absent, to become the 32nd Vermont school district, and the first in Bennington County, to join the suit. However, because the meeting was warned as a budget meeting and not a board meeting, a new vote has been scheduled for tonight at 5:30 in the school library.

The supervisory union's attorney, through SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen, voiced concern about the vote's legality on Wednesday, board chairwoman Cindy Brownell said.

"We're not sure where it's going to go," Brownell said at Tuesday's meeting. "But there's been a lot of concern from taxpayers."

She pointed out that Pownal voters rejected a merger under Act 46 in a November 2017 vote, but are still being forced to participate in a merger with the other elementary school districts of Shaftsbury, Woodford and Bennington. 

The vote calls into question the timing of the organizational meeting for the new union district, which has been scheduled for Jan. 15. A motion filed by the Vermont Attorney General's office in Washington County Superior Court seeks to push back the deadline for the required organizational meetings of the merged school boards that have filed suit.

The motion also asks for additional time to respond to the legal challenge filed last month against Act 46, and seeks an extension of time to resolve the lawsuit, particularly the suit's request for a preliminary injunction against the implementation of the forced merger of school districts under the law.

This motion reflects an agreement between the AG's office and the plaintiffs to postpone new union district board meetings, said Charles Merriman, one of the plaintiff's attorneys in the lawsuit.

Both parties have agreed that organizational meetings relating to the plaintiffs' districts would be warned to begin in the third week of February, according to the AG's motion.The court has not yet ruled on the plaintiff's suit for a preliminary injunction and stay, and no hearing has yet been scheduled.

Act 46, enacted in 2015, identified the preferred model of governance for the state's schools as a unified union school district responsible for pre-K through grade 12 education.

"It's a giant step forward," Brownell said, referring to the vote. "But it may not mean anything. We have to take it."

The district is the only one in the SVSU to decide to legally challenge the required Act 46 merger, which was announced in a final plan issued by the state Board of Education in late November 2018.

The legal challenge was initially brought by 31 school boards across the state — predominantly of small rural schools — in Washington Superior Court in December 2018, setting up a legal confrontation over the Act 46 forced mergers that are now underway in school districts.

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys Merriman, David Kelley, and Ines McGillion, claims that the state Agency of Education and the state Board of Education had misinterpreted their powers under Act 46 and were acting in an unconstitutional way in forcing many town school districts to merge, losing their independence and representation in the process.

Pownal will have to file a request with the court to be added as a plaintiff in the suit. 

Joining the 31 school districts were seven select boards, one planning commission, taxpayers, parents and students, from Westminster to Montgomery. 

Windham County school districts have also joined the challenge, including Athens, Grafton, Westminster, Bellows Falls Union High School and Windham, as well as several parents, students and grandparents.

Ted Fisher, spokesman for the Agency of Education, declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Phone calls and emails to the SVSU administration and Nelson Brownell, chairman of the SVSU school board, were not returned by press time.

Pownal has been in communication with attorneys about joining the lawsuit for about three to four weeks, but the board has been talking about joining the suit for a while, Brownell said. 

The board feels strongly about the fact that the town voted against a merger under Act 46, but is still being forced to merge, she said. The board is also unhappy about sharing significant debt from the Bennington under a merger, she said.

"We felt that it was necessary to take this step, in the interest of the people in Pownal," she said when reached Friday. Several people also contacted the board, saying they didn't understand why a merger was going forward, considering the town had voted against merging.

"I guess that kind of pushed us towards [thinking], 'well, we better do something,'" she said.

With Pownal joining the suit, the transitional board meeting for the new union district that would include Pownal — scheduled for Jan. 15 — should be cancelled, Merriman said.

"If this isn't cancelled, we the plaintiffs will fight that issue separately," he said. "We will dispute the legitimacy of that meeting."

The intention behind the agreement to push the meetings back, he said, is to allow the court time to address the issue of the motion to stay.

The meeting was listed on the SVSU's website as of mid-afternoon Wednesday. 

Multiple factors influenced the districts to join the lawsuit, including having to share the debt of other districts, Merriman said. 

"The reason that passions me the most is twofold," he said. For one, he said, Act 46 has been implemented contrary to its stated intention to encourage and support local decisions and actions.

"You are not encouraging and supporting local decisions and actions when you as a bureaucrat tell a duly elected board to merge, over its judgement," he said. "Even more so, you're not encouraging and supporting these local decisions and actions when those communities actually came together in many instances and voted against merger."

The lawsuit seeks a finding that Act 46 is unconstitutional as applied, Merriman said.

"We're just looking for the democratic process to be respected," he said. " We want to see towns who voted not to merge, for that vote to be respected."

Merriman said he did not think any other districts are currently signing on to join the lawsuit.

Margaret MacLean, a volunteer working on Act 46-related issues with school districts, said people are most upset about the processes in relation to Act 46.

The state board, she said, did not consider alternatives districts presented to mergers "on their merits."

"And then there's the issue of debts," she said. 

Article 5 of the Articles of Agreement governing the implementation of Act 46 mergers require the new union district to assume all debt of the forming districts, including capital debt; the new union district cannot change this article.

MacLean clarified that, from her perspective, there's no need for Act 46 to be scrapped.

"I don't think anyone has a problem with the goals of the law," she said. "I think if people voluntarily choose to merge, that's their decision."

But she said, people should not be forced into mergers if they did not vote to do so.

MacLean said the hope is that the injunction is granted, and stays in place until the underlying legal issues are resolved.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.

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Act 46 suit filed in court

By Susan Smallheer, Brattleboro Reformer

Posted Thursday, December 20, 2018 6:42 pm

MONTPELIER — The legal challenge brought by 31 school boards across the state — representing predominantly small rural schools — was filed Thursday in Washington Superior Court, setting up a legal confrontation over the Act 46 forced mergers of school districts now underway.

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys David Kelley, Charles Merriman and Ines McGillion, claimed the state Agency of Education and the state Board of Education had misinterpreted its powers under Act 46, and was acting in an unconstitutional way in forcing many town school districts to merge, losing their independence and representation in the process.

Joining the 31 school districts were seven select boards, one planning commission, taxpayers, parents and students, from Westminster to Montgomery. The attorneys for the appeal, Athens School District et al vs. the State Board of Education et al, said they would be filing a companion request for an expedited hearing and a stay on Friday, with hopes that Washington Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout could hold a hearing as soon as Monday.

The Athens et al lawsuit is the second legal challenge filed in recent days regarding the forced merger of school districts under Act 46. Stowe, Elmore and Morrisville filed their own lawsuit last week, and Kelley said he expected a third lawsuit from Huntington would be filed in the next few days.

Kelley, a Craftsbury Common lawyer and former chairman of his town's school board, said he hoped for a quick day in court. 

"The issues are compelling and immediate," said Kelley, who said that in his 40 years of practicing law, including being involved in the bankruptcies of Vermont ski areas, this was the most complicated legal challenge he'd worked on.

"There are so many appellants and we raise a wide spectrum of issues," he said. "Act 46 was not a well-written law."

Windham County school districts joining the challenge include Athens, Grafton, Westminster, Bellows Falls Union High School, and Windham, as well as several parents, students and grandparents from Westminster and Dummerston.

"If upheld, the Board's 'casual dismissal of statute' will have lasting impacts for decades, perhaps even centuries, to come," Kelley wrote. "It is already tearing communities apart and pitting towns against each other. It is harming our students, our schools, the very fabric of rural life, the democratic process, checks and balances, and the foundational notion that governance requires consent of the governed."

Ted Fisher, a spokesman for the Vermont Department of Education, said the agency did not comment on pending lawsuits.

The legal challenge is an appeal of a final decision in late November outlining all the forced mergers it was imposing on school districts. 

Jack Bryar of Grafton, a member of both the Grafton School Board and the Bellows Falls Union School Board, said Act 46 is "unhinged from any reality" of how Vermont school boards run their schools. 

He said one key challenge dealt with what he said was the "unlawful seizure of property" with the transfer of one town's school, and the awarding of it to another school district. "And it gives me their debt to share," he said. 

Bryar said one of the stated goals of Act 46 — reduction of school spending — was a myth. "We have petitioned the state repeatedly to show us where the savings are," he said, noting one Windham County merged school district was now facing a 10 percent budget increase. "Chaos costs money and it's not the way to save money," he said.

A group of school board members across the state has formed The Alliance of Vermont School Board Members and has been raising money to challenge the state ruling.

Kelley said he and the other lawyers were working essentially as volunteers.

Merriman, a former assistant attorney general and chairman of his local elementary school board in Middlesex, said the culture of Vermont is really at stake.

"Vermont is founded on the town system, not the county system. And yes, there are real difficulties with the economics of education in a rural state. But what are we losing? We're losing an amazing amount of talent," Merriman said, referring to the hundreds of school board members. "Act 46 is a very superintendent-friendly act and it gives short shrift to democracy."

School districts and towns banding together to fight the decisions by the state Board of Education and the Agency of Education include the Athens School District, Barnard School District, Barnard Select Board, Bellows Falls Union High School, Berlin School District, Brighton School District, Brownington Select Board, Calais School District, Calais Select Board, Charleston School District, Coventry School District, Craftsbury School District, Dummerston School District, Franklin School District, Franklin Select Board, Glover School District, Grafton School District, Greensboro School District and Greensboro Select Board. 

Also, Highgate School District, Irasburg Planning Commission, Irasburg School District, Irasburg Select Board, Jay/Westfield School District, Lakeview Union School District, Lowell School District, Middlesex School District, Montgomery School District, Montgomergy Select Board, Newbury School District, Newport Town School District, Richford School District, Sheldon School District, Stannard School District, Troy School District, Westminster School District, Windham School District, Worcester School District, and individuals Sarah, Matthew, Chloe and Ethan Silva, all of Montgomery; Jonathan, Ivy and Audrey Betts, all of Montgomery; Bruce, Elise Manning, Nellie and John Douglas Sterling; all of Westminster; Paul and Jo Jean Normandeau, both of Dummerston; Dorothy Naylor, Cameron Scott Thompson, both of Calais; and Ashley Randall of Lowell.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or 802 254-2311, ext. 154.

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State board votes for mergers in Barre,
Lake Region and Stowe school districts

By Lola Duffort Nov 16, 2018

Dan French of the State Board of Education listens to testimony
during a board meeting in Barre on Thursday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

 

The State Board of Education has moved to forcibly merge several more districts.

On Thursday, the board voted to merge school boards in Barre City and Barre Town; and six Lake Region Union High school districts; and upheld its previous vote on the merger of Stowe and Elmore-Morristown districts.

The state board has now weighed in on all 43 alternative proposals put forward under Act 46. The controversial consolidation law requires the board to make the final call on all districts that have not voluntarily merged. Unconsolidated districts put forward so-called “alternative governance structure” proposals, most asked to remain basically as-is. In June, then-acting Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey submitted her recommendation for mergers.

The state board has until Nov. 30 to reorder districts, and it has been issuing provisional decisions on a rolling basis since October. A meeting is scheduled for Nov. 28 for the board to formally adopt its decisions, none of which are technically final yet.

The merger in Barre includes consolidation of Barre City, Barre Town, and Spaulding High school boards. Some Barre officials argued for a merger by pointing out a bulk of operations had already been consolidated to the supervisory union level. And others, meanwhile, said that the current arrangement worked well and that no one would choose to serve on a school board that would oversee a system of about 1,500 students.

Local officials tried one last-ditch effort to voluntarily consolidate the districts during last week’s general election. But in both Barre and Orleans Central, voters rejected mergers at the ballot box.

State board members who voted in the majority to consolidate the Barre Supervisory Union noted that, while Barre Town had voted against a merger, the city had voted in favor of it by much larger margins, and that, if the vote were combined, the total tally was pro-merger.

Huling also appeared struck by how much school spending in Barre City and Town had been centralized to the supervisory union level. Supervisory union budgets are not voted on directly by residents the way town school district budgets are, and proponents of Act 46 have argued that district consolidation could save money at the supervisory union level.

“We have have an SU budget that is on the order of about $14 million. And then each of our three district budgets are about $10 million. So the largest budget that we have is in the SU,” Barre superintendent John Pandolfo told state board members.

In the Northeast Kingdom, six school districts (Albany, Barton, Brownington, Glover, Irasburg, and Orleans) that all funnel into Lake Region Union High in the Orleans Central Supervisory Union will be consolidated.

Ironically, the lone district in Orleans Central that voted in favor of a merger last Tuesday – Westmore – will remain a standalone district. That’s because the district doesn’t operate a K-8 school like its partners in the supervisory union, and the state board cannot merge districts that have school structures.

Krista Huling, chair of the State Board of Education, listens to discussion
during a board meeting in Barre on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In a presentation to the state board, Orleans Central superintendent Bev Davis and supervisory union board chair Amy Leroux both said the school board was fully behind a merger despite opposition from the communities themselves.

“How do you, as a board, resolve that dilemma. The people tell you one thing, and you think another?” state board member John Carroll asked.

“I’ve been thinking about that very much for the past week or so,” Leroux answered. “I unfortunately don’t have an answer.”

Both Davis and Leroux said a unified structure would make it easier to recruit and retain the necessary staff to better address inequities across the supervisory union’s member schools, especially its smaller buildings.

And state board member John O’Keefe asked the two officials if, with opposition to mergers so high in the communities, anybody had tried to run against school board members.

“No. That would be phenomenal. Again, that’s one other thing we struggle with – is finding someone to serve on the school boards,” Leroux said.

The board also went over earlier decisions, and in one case – a proposed merger between the Stowe and the Elmore-Morristown districts – nearly reversed course. The board had voted just two weeks ago to merge the two districts despite the secretary’s plan recommending they remain independent. The decision took local school officials in both districts by surprise, and representatives from both the Elmore-Morristown and Stowe board jointly attended the state board’s meeting Thursday to plead for autonomy.


John Carroll (center) of the State Board of Education speaks during
a board meeting in Barre on Thursday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

David Bickford, from the Elmore-Morristown board, told state officials that a forced merger between the two communities would cause people on the ground to “retreat” from the considerable – and voluntary – work already done to bring the two districts closer together. And Stowe school board member Jim Brochhausen read off a litany of data points to argue the two districts already had basically the same curriculum and substantial equity in both academic offerings and outcomes.

Their presentation almost convinced the state board, who revisited their decision later in the meeting at the prompting of student member Callahan Beck.

Carroll made a motion to reconsider the board’s earlier vote, saying that while he hadn’t agreed with the secretary’s reasoning in her proposed plan, a study of the districts’ joint alternative governance proposal had made him rethink his earlier decision.

“There’s pretty compelling evidence that the AGS proposal of these communities, and their track record of years and years of collaboration, shows that the AGS is highly responsive to the objectives of the act,” he said.

But the board split 4-4, with Huling then breaking the tie to vote against reconsideration.

 

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The Alliance of Vermont School Board Members is preparing to support schools and communities which are seeking strategies to avoid forced mergers. By joining together we can work more effectively


Where ? Bellows Falls Union High School,
406 High School Drive, Westminster, Vt
When ? Wednesday, November 28 @ 6:30 PM

Press Release

On Wednesday, November 28 at 6:30, Alliance of Vermont School Board Members' attorney David Kelley of Craftsbury Common will be addressing a joint meeting of the school boards which comprise the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union. Atty. Kelley will be discussing the legal next-steps for schools and communities facing arbitrary forced mergers as the result of recent actions taken by the Vermont State Board of Education based on their interpretation of Act 46, the school consolidation legislation. This will be an opportunity for other school boards in the region, as well as concerned citizens, to find out how to support the schools in their communities as they struggle to maintain their independence.

Recently, on Thursday, November 15th, the WNESU school boards slated for forced merger, Athens, Grafton, and Westminster, were invited to resubmit evidence from their Alternative Governance Structure proposal to the State Board of Education during their meeting that day in Barre, and a similar invitation was also extended to the Elmore-Morrisville Unified Union Schools which the State Board of Education had previously announced its intention to force-merge with the Stowe School District. On November 15 the State Board reaffirmed its intent to force-merge Elmore-Morrisville and Stowe, and took no further action with regard to their proposed Athens-Grafton-Westminster forced merger.

In a subsequent Special Joint School Board meeting, also on November 15, the School Boards of Athens, Grafton and Westminster reaffirmed their intent to join with more than 20 other school districts across the State which are committed to challenging the legality of these forced mergers in the Courts. They will be joined on the 28th by the school board of the Town of Rockingham and also that of Bellows Falls Union High School, which together comprise the five districts of the Windham Northeast supervisory Union.

Bellows Falls Union High School is located at 406 High School Drive, just off U.S. Route 5 in the Town of Westminster, about one mile South of the Village of Bellows Falls, and about an hour and a half South of Montpelier.

From points North, take Interstate 89 South to Interstate 91 in White River Junction and continue South on Interstate 91 to Exit 6, Rockingham / Bellows Falls, continuing south on U.S. Rte. 5 approximately three miles to Bellows Falls, continuing through Bellows Falls Village, about one mile to High School Drive, which is well signed.

From the South, take Interstate 91 North to Exit 5, Westminster, and continue North on Rte. 5 approximately 1.5 miles to High School Drive.

For more information, please visit this website frequently.



State Board issues second round of Act 46 decisions

By Lola Duffort Oct 29 2018

The Vermont State Board of Education has now weighed in on nearly all districts that asked for a reprieve under Act 46, issuing a second round of provisional decisions on Monday regarding districts facing the possibility of forced mergers.

The 11-member body is tasked with deciding what to do with the 90-some districts that have so far refused to merge under Vermont’s school board consolidation law.

The Secretary of Education released a recommended plan earlier this summer. The board, which makes the final call on consolidations, issued a first batch of decisions on about two-thirds of proposals earlier this month.

State board member John Carroll said near the conclusion of the daylong meeting held at Mill River Union High in North Clarendon that he had been concerned at the outset of the process that the body might act “in slavish obedience to the recommendations of the Secretary.”

“I think that today’s work shows that the board is quite really capable of thinking for itself,” he said.

In most instances, the board has taken their cues from the Secretary’s plan. But they have departed from it in notable instances, and in several cases have voted to merge districts the Secretary had recommended be allowed to remain as is.

State Board of Education member John Carroll. Photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger


In Stowe’s case, for example, the Secretary had recommended the district be allowed to remain independent instead of merging with the newly created nearby Elmore-Morristown district. In her recommended plan, then-interim Secretary Heather Bouchey had written that the “communities’ concern for the well-being of all their children will impel them eventually to continue to seek opportunities to work collaboratively.”

“That’s kind of weak tea to me,” Carroll said.

Others agreed, and John O’Keefe, another board member, pointed out that others facing forced mergers had complained Stowe appeared to be getting a pass where others were not.

“This is one of the ones that consistently was pointed out,” he said.

The board next meets on Nov. 14 in Williamstown. Neither the board nor the Secretary have weighed in so far on Barre City and Barre Town, or on the seven member districts of Lake Region Union High. That’s because voters in those communities will go to the polls Nov. 6 to vote on merger proposals. State officials said they didn’t want to interfere with that process.

The board also still needs to finalize articles of agreement, which will act as governing documents for districts formed by forced mergers.

A coalition of communities facing forced mergers, meanwhile, are readying for a lawsuit. Nearly two dozen school boards have taken a vote to join as plaintiffs if merged against their will in the State Board’s plan.

The state board only has the authority merge school districts under Act 46 until November 30. But it can redraw supervisory union boundaries at will, and board members began a preliminary conversation Monday about what a newly-drawn SU map might look like.

Education Secretary Dan French indicated he supported the initiative – but he urged board members to put the conversation aside for the time being, and to come back to it after the Act 46 process had concluded.

“The broader pattern and function of SUs I think should be revisited in a larger policy conversation,” French said.

Here’s a rundown of the decisions made Monday:

• The board disagreed with the Secretary’s plan to merge Danville and Cabot, and took no action on Twinfield. But they did re-assign Twinfield and Cabot to the Caledonia Central Supervisory Union.

• The board agreed with the Secretary’s plan to leave Craftsbury as-is.
The board disagreed with the Secretary and voted to merge Stowe with the Elmore-Morristown district.

• The board agreed with the Secretary’s plan to merge the Enosburgh and Richford districts.
The board agreed with the Secretary’s plan to leave the Fairfax, Fletcher, and Georgia school districts as-is.

• The board agreed with the Secretary’s plan to leave Hartland and Weathersfield as-is.

• The board agreed with the Secretary’s plan to merge Montgomery and Sheldon with the Franklin Northeast Pre-K-8 school district. That means re-assigning Sheldon into the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union.

• The board agreed with the Secretary’s plan to allow Stamford to continue exploring an inter-state district with Massachusetts.

• The board agreed with the Secretary’s plan to allow the Waits River Valley unified school district to stay as-is.

• The board disagreed with the Secretary’s plan to leave the member districts of Bellows Falls Union High as-is, and instead voted to merge together Athens, Grafton, and Westminster. Because Rockingham has a different operating structure, it will remain a stand-alone.

• The board disagreed with the Secretary’s plan to leave the member districts of Hazen Union High as-is, and instead voted to merge together Stannard, Hardwick, Woodbury, and Greensboro.

 

 

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Letter from David F. Kelley Attorney at Law

to the Vermont State Board of Education and

the Vermont Agency of Education

 

 

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With decisions looming, State Board sets guiding principles on forced mergers

By Lola Duffort
Oct 2 2018

 

Krista Huling is chair of the State Board of Education. Photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger


Vermont’s school district consolidation law envisioned smaller districts folding into larger entities, except where mergers aren’t “possible” or “practicable.” In certain respects, the law is extremely specific, outlining potential configurations and the minimum number of students expected in new structures.

But on key points, Act 46 is vague.

“It doesn’t define what is possible or practicable. That’s kind of our job here today,” State Board of Education chair Krista Huling said Tuesday at the start of another marathon meeting for the 11-member body.

The board is tasked with deciding what to do with the 40-some “alternative governance” proposals submitted under the law by districts that haven’t voluntarily merged by now. The secretary of education released a recommended plan earlier this summer, and the board now has until Nov. 30 to make the final call.

Over the course of eight hours, board members debated debt, community votes against mergers, geography, and relations between districts. The board ultimately voted to adopt a short list of principles to guide their decision-making process moving forward, although its members also emphasized the list wasn’t set in stone.

Board members telegraphed that they would basically agree with the secretary’s analysis on the question of which forced mergers weren’t “possible,” or allowed under the law. Those include mergers of districts with different operating structures, inter-state districts or technical centers.

But the question of how to decide whether mergers were “practicable” generated hours of discussion. The board ultimately voted that five scenarios, in some combination, would warrant the body considering – but not necessarily granting – communities an out from mergers.

Potentially impracticable partnerships included:

• Districts where formal agreements and/or processes are already underway to merge.
• Non-contiguous districts, unless communities themselves suggested the partnerships in an alternative governance proposal.
• Cases in which per-pupil spending was greater than 20 percent of the mean per-pupil spending of potential merger partners. Where potential partners had such disparate spending levels, board members said they would consider whether debt precluded a merger.
• Cases in which communities voted against formal merger proposals.
• Cases in which a district or supervisory union was merged within the last two fiscal years and was not a modified unified union school district or non-member elementary district.

A key argument by districts facing potentially forced mergers is that state-imposed consolidations that ignore community votes rejecting those mergers are undemocratic. Board members spent a significant chunk of time Tuesday talking about how much weight – if any – they should accord these no votes.

 

Oliver Olsen. File photo by Amy Ash Nixon/VTDigger

The question cuts to the core of why Act 46 was so controversial from the start, but board member Oliver Olsen – a key player in the law’s passage during his time as a state representative – argued that the law was written with teeth for a reason.

Earlier legislative attempts to cajole school districts into merging solely through incentives “quite frankly didn’t work,” he said.

School districts that merged voluntarily during earlier phases of Act 46’s implementation did so because they understood the State Board would if they didn’t, he said. And to exempt school districts who rejected all merger proposals at the ballot box from ultimately consolidating at all would send the wrong message.

“I think there’s an inherent issue of fairness,” he said.

But some board members appeared loath to dismiss votes completely.

“It doesn’t make a difference how many times you voted on that particular question? And how thorough you presented that question to the community? Because I think it does,” countered board member Mark Perrin.

The State Board will next meet Oct. 17, when it may start making preliminary merger decisions on some of the less complicated and controversial configurations.


 

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State Board of Education Meeting

October 2, 2018  8:30 AM - 4:30 PM 
Public to Be Heard: 9:15 AM 
White River Valley School (Bethel Campus) 
273 Pleasant St. Bethel, Vt.  05032

Click here for agenda  


 

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 VT Digger Minute

Anti-Act 46 groups threaten to sue state board, AoE

By Lola Duffort



Sep. 13 2018

Act 46 skeptics are preparing for a lawsuit.

An attorney volunteering with the Alliance of Vermont School Boards Members has sent a letter to the Vermont Agency of Education and the State Board of Education threatening to sue in the event of forced mergers. The “litigation hold letter” puts the state on notice it could be subject to a suit and instructs it to preserve any documents that could be subject to the discovery process if the matter goes to court.

The letter, signed by Greensboro attorney David Kelley, also places a public records request for all AoE and state board documents relating to the secretary of education’s proposed plan under Act 46. Under the law, the secretary was tasked with recommending what to do with districts that have not voluntarily merged. The board will have the final say, and the letter is an explicit attempt to influence the body as it enters the final phase of the law.

“When you issue your final plan by November 30, 2018, I would encourage you to reject all forced mergers, and I am hopeful that you will pursue that course,” the letter states.

State Board Chair Krista Huling said the letter – which comes as school districts resisting mergers try a range of options, including shuttering schools – is no surprise.

“Almost every meeting we’ve had, people are threatening lawsuits,” she said.

She added that the board is committed to going through the process with an open mind. And she said the threat of going to court wasn’t going to sway them one way or another.

“It’s their prerogative to do that, but I don’t think it’s going to influence our decision-making,” she said.

The alliance formed last year as a rival lobbying group when Vermont School Boards Association members unhappy with the association’s stance on the consolidation law splintered off. The secretary’s plan, released earlier this summer, recommended 18 forced mergers covering dozens of school districts.

Margaret MacLean is working with Vermonters for Schools and Community, another anti-Act 46 group, to coordinate opposition to forced mergers, including to recruit plaintiffs. She argues, as the letter does, that the secretary’s plan hasn’t given enough credit to communities that asked the state to accept alternatives to mergers under the law.

“I think that from the beginning communities have in good faith asked, tried, made every effort to work in partnership with the state,” she said. “And they have complied with the legal process to present an alternative proposal. And they deserve to have those proposals looked at on their merits.”

At least five school boards have voted to join a lawsuit as plaintiffs in the event of a forced merger, MacLean said, and another 30 could take a vote sometime within the next few weeks.

The letter says communities could sue on several grounds, including that forced mergers violate the federal and state “takings” clause.

“The State Board cannot reassign ownership of school facilities or other property from the towns that own those properties, or reassign debt among the citizens of different towns, without due process and just compensation,” it states.

The agency doesn’t comment on litigation or the possibility of pending litigation, spokesperson Ted Fisher said, but officials are responding to the group’s public records request.



 

Litigation Hold Letter-Act 46 Statewide Plan

DAVID F. KELLEY

ATTORNEY AT LAW
1501 SHADOW LAKE ROAD CRAFTSBURY COMMON, VT 05827

Via Email

Krista Huling, Chair
Vermont State Board of Education 219 North Main Street, Suite 402 Barre, VT 05641
krista.huling@vermont.gov

Molly Bachman, General Counsel Vermont Agency of Education 219 North Main Street, Suite 402 Barre, VT 05641
molly.bachman@vermont.gov

Cc:  William Griffin, Chief Assistant Attorney General

Re:  Combined Public Records Act Request Under 1 V.S.A. Chapter 5 and Request for
Preservation of Paper and Electronic Documents Related to Act 46 Statewide Plan

Dear Chair Huling and Ms. Bachman,

As you know, a number of groups are opposed to the forced merger of local school boards. I am working with some of those groups, including the Alliance of Vermont School Board Members Inc., on these efforts. These groups were happy to hear the discussion among State Board members at the end of the August 15, 2018 meeting, where some Board members expressed skepticism about accepting the forced mergers that have been recommended by the Acting Secretary of Education. When you issue your final plan by November 30, 2018, I would encourage you to reject all forced mergers, and I am hopeful that you will pursue that course.

That said, given the Agency's proposed Statewide Plan, and the statements of Chair Huling and others that they expect that the State Board will force merger on at least some unwilling school districts, we are forced to consider all of our options, including litigation seeking injunctive relief in state or federal court. We believe there is a strong case to be made that it is illegal to force mergers on unwilling districts for a number of reasons, including:

(1) Under the Takings Clause of the federal and state constitutions, the State Board cannot reassign ownership of school facilities or other property from the towns that own those properties, or reassign debt among the citizens of different towns, without due process and just compensation.

(2) The merger of already existing union districts with other boards violates 16 V.S.A. § 706n, which requires a vote to amend the Articles of Agreement that established the union district. The Legislature recognized this in Act 49 of 2017, which specifically requested proposed legislation that “amends 16
V.S.A. § 706n, which currently requires all later amendments to articles to be approved by either the electorate or the unified board based upon whether the provision was included in the Warning for the original merger vote.” Act 49 (2017) § 10(d)(3)(B). The Legislature failed to pass any amendments to 16 V.S.A. § 706n during the 2018 legislative session. Consequently, the State Board does not have authority to force merger on a union district.

(3) A forced merger of towns such as those in Washington Central Supervisory Union and a number of other districts experiencing differing levels of debt, is not in accordance with law because Act 49 requires “consideration of greatly differing levels of indebtedness among the member districts.” Act 49 (2017)  § 7(c)(4). The State Board cannot ignore duly passed laws.

(4) The State Board cannot ignore the clearly stated legislative intent that town votes matter and that these votes represent more than mere “community sentiment.” Further, if the State Board adopts the Acting Secretary’s plan to merge districts like Barnard into already existing Modified Unified Union Districts (MUUD) under the Articles of Agreement adopted by the other members of the MUUD, it would be arbitrary, capricious, and not in accordance with law. This is because it would give force of law to one part of a vote (the MUUD districts’ adoption of Articles of Agreement) while overriding another part of a vote (the dissenting town’s choice to not join the MUUD), even though those decisions occurred simultaneously on the same ballot.

(5) A forced merger is arbitrary, capricious, and not in accordance with law, for many other reasons, including:

(a) It would directly contravene duly warned and properly held democratic votes of districts opposed to merger. Some of these towns voted multiple times against merger. For instance, Huntington held 4 separate votes and each time voted "No" to merger. The town of Franklin held a vote in which its citizens unanimously opposed merger.

(b) It would treat similarly situated actors differently. For instance, if districts such as Stowe and Elmore-Morristown are not forced to merge, then similarly situated districts, which provided similar explanations as Stowe and Elmore-Morristown for why merger would not work, cannot be forced to merge. The disparate treatment of these communities raises substantial “Common Benefits” and “Equal Protection” clause questions.

(c) It would impose more stringent requirements on alternative governance structures than what is required by law, in direct violation of the mandate in Act 49 of 2017 that the State Board "shall not by rule or otherwise impose more stringent requirements than those in this act."

(d) It would render Section 9 of Act 46, as amended by Act 49, mere surplusage, in direct contravention of the statutory language and legislative intent.

(e) In multiple instances foundational data for the anticipated Statewide Plan as proposed is incorrect.

This is not an exhaustive list. We are currently working to develop these and other claims that may be brought in the event that the State Board elects to force merger on unwilling districts. We raise this preliminary list of issues now for two reasons:

(1) to provide notice to the State Board of Education and the Agency of Education that, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the merits of the above claims, you should reasonably anticipate litigation regarding any proposal to force merger, and thus preserve all documents potentially relevant to litigation; and

(2) under 1 V.S.A. Chapter 5, we formally request a subset of those documents—
namely, any data, information, and communications related to the Acting Secretary’s proposed Statewide Plan and the State Board’s analysis (including that of individual Board members) to date of that plan (including emails or text messages related to these matters). We specifically request that these documents be provided in electronic format, which should minimize any potential cost to us in receiving these documents. (If you anticipate any costs, please provide an estimate, along with justification for how these costs were calculated under the Secretary of State’s fee provisions.)

This is to notify you that, if you have not already done so, you must immediately commence a "litigation hold" to retain and preserve all records, including all paper and electronically stored documents, data and information (such as emails and text messages), which may be relevant or which might reasonably be expected to lead to the discovery of relevant information relative to the above-referenced claims and any other claims that may be brought if the State Board imposes merger on unwilling districts. This includes, by way of example and not limitation, any written or printed research or reports, electronically stored information, texts, calendars, emails or other communications or documents, whether stored in hard copies or electronically on government electronic or private electronic devices, including all allegedly privileged materials, related in any way to Act 46 of 2015 and Act 49 of 2017 and the passage and implementation of those laws and related rules and the anticipated Statewide Plan.

The obligation to preserve all records includes the preservation of all types of written, printed, electronic, and other materials including: memos, correspondence (including emails), spreadsheets, PowerPoints, reports, handwritten notes, drafts, files, calendars, appointment books, audio and video tapes, backups, and diaries. This requirement to retain information also applies to all non-identical copies, versions, and drafts. If you create documents including memos, letters, and spreadsheets that are relevant to the subject matter of this anticipated litigation, you should save major revisions as new documents so previous drafts are preserved.

This obligation to preserve records extends to all personnel, individual Board members, employees of both the State Board of Education and the Agency of Education, as well as all people contracted with or consulted by these agencies (whether within or outside of state government) who may have documents that may be relevant to this anticipated litigation. We trust that you will work quickly to immediately identify and notify all of these people of their obligation to preserve records.

Finally, the obligation to preserve records may require immediate actions to ensure that no potentially relevant documents are automatically deleted through an email or database "auto-delete" function or any other other routine destruction function. All persons with potentially relevant records should ensure that their email accounts and other databases, including email "trash" folders, do not have "auto-delete" or other routine destruction functions set for older records.

Thank you for your immediate attention to this important matter.

Sincerely,
/s/ David F. Kelley
David F. Kelley

 

 

Dear School Board Chair,

While we all hope that the State Board of Education will see the issues raised in the Alternative plan submissions as genuine barriers to “practicable” school district mergers, we all know that we cannot wait for the final state plan to be issued before preparing for the worst. Instead we need to take some precautionary steps now.  You are faced with clear choices:

  1. Accept a ruling of the SBE that you must merge.
  2. Look to join legal action to provide relief
  3. Vote to close your school and begin plans to create an independent school locally.

Each district will need to mull over the options and decide on their best next step. I am writing today to let you know that a volunteer group of school leaders has been meeting and working with some volunteer attorneys to lay the groundwork for legal challenges to forced merger.  We hope that litigation is not going to be necessary, but want to be prepared in the event it is.  And we are clear that if it is necessary, it will be best if communities choose to take joint action to gain relief from forced merger, rather than trying to go alone, one by one, into court.

Over the weekend the group submitted the attached joint litigation “hold” (a warning to potential defendants that they must not destroy or alter records related to decisions they have made) and a public records request to the State Board of Education and the Agency of Education. It details some of the issues districts face and informs both the State Board and Agency that litigation is possible.

I am writing at this time to ask you to discuss with your fellow board members the option of legal action and, if the resolve is there, to vote in the next few weeks to join other districts in a lawsuit to seek a preliminary injunction against forced merger, if such a lawsuit is warranted.  I want to emphasize that we hope the idea of forced mergers dies, as it should, and that litigation becomes unnecessary. 

At this time there is no cost involved as the lawyers are volunteering their time. Once the SBE plan is published we understand that some districts may not be recommended for forced merger and at that point they would withdraw from the potential litigation, leaving others to move forward if they choose to do so.   At that stage we will know the number of districts who will be plaintiffs and will be able to determine the cost per district.  We believe that the final amount will be a reasonable amount per community to bring the process to the stage of a preliminary injunction.

The lawsuit would be filed as soon as possible after the publication of the final plan. The volunteer attorneys are currently working on the complaint and if a preliminary injunction is issued, it would stop the process of forced merger until the case is resolved. Consequently, you would prepare your school budget for your district as usual this school year as merger would most likely not happen on July 1st 2019 but be delayed until legal action is resolved.

As soon as your district has decided and voted on this please let me know. This will indicate that your district intends, if forced into merger, to be a plaintiff in the case moving forward. Once we have received the outcome of your local vote we will arrange a meeting in early October with representatives from each district that has signed on to be a plaintiff. At that time, we will answer questions and outline the next steps. Please let me know by September 28th your decision either way.

If your community has retained an attorney to represent you on this issue please send us their contact information as we would like to loop them into this working group of lawyers.
If you have questions do not hesitate to call me at 802-274-3080 or email me directly at margmaclean@netscape.net.

Together we have a strong case for the fair resolution of the issues districts have presented in their alternative plans.

Sincerely

Margaret MacLean
Vermonters for Schools and Communities

Attached
Litigation Hold and public records request
Unfair and Unwise

Potential Motion
"The xxxxx school district votes to become a plaintiff to join LEGAL ACTION AGAINST FORCED MERGER in the event that the State Board of Education's final Statewide Plan imposes forced merger on xxxxx school district." 

 

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Unfair and Unwise
The Secretary of Education’s Plan Regarding Involuntary
Mergers Misguides the State Board of Education,
Violates the Law, and Damages Public Education
August, 2018


In 2015, the Vermont General Assembly set the state’s public school system on a course of centralization. To the extent that communities were willing to give up self-governance, the process of school district consolidation would be voluntary and deliberative.

As in many other rural states where education governance structures have been consolidated, the political alliance that drove Vermont’s consolidation was a coincidence of interest between unlike partners: conservative budget hawks promising more efficiency and lower per pupil spending, and education elites, promising more high-end courses, and equity in curricular offerings.

The law that set this course of action is Act 46 (as amended in 2017 by Act 49). It established a “preferred” governance model—a single K-12 school district providing education to all students in the district and having a minimum enrollment of 1,250.

No one believed that such a model could work everywhere in a state of very small communities, many strewn along narrow valleys between mountains, and many more spread out across sparsely populated farm and forest lands. So the General Assembly created multiple pathways to “alternative governance structures” in places where the preferred structure was not the best structure.

Districts serving communities who found merger into the preferred model impracticable were accorded the right under Section 9 of Act 46 to go through a separate planning process to arrive at a proposal for how they would structure themselves, alone or in combination with other districts, to meet the goals of the Act with regard to equity, efficiency, and opportunity. In December 2017, 95 Vermont school districts (about one-third), alone or in various combinations, submitted 44 “Section 9” proposals. To continue reading click here.

www.vtschoolsrock.org

 

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Strategies For School Boards Facing Involuntary Mergers Conference
July 7th
Aldrich Library, Barre
10:00am - 1:00pm


Join us to put our heads together around the steps school districts ​can take to defend against forced mergers and closures of local schools

Conveying school buildings from the district to the town or a not-for-profit?
 
Voting to become a choice town rather than be compelled to merge? 

Others?


Agenda

10AM- Coffee, Tea,  Scones
              Welcome and Introductions- David Schoales, Brattleboro Town School Board

10:15- What is to be done if the Secretary's plan says your district should merge?
             Steps to take and options to consider; Q and A

10:45- ​ How do we prepare for the regional meetings? – Review a list of important steps to take.
​               Q and A.

11:15-   Potential generic arguments and approaches that are possible based on the plan?  Q and A.

11:45-  Arguments and ​approaches that could apply to specific districts/SU's- Margaret Maclean​

How do we exploit weaknesses in the Secretary's plan to strengthen our alternative plans? 
How do we prove our alternatives are the "best."
Districts with similar issues link up to plan/prepare responses to the plan. 

​12:45-​  Final Q and A- What do we need to do next?

Please RSVP to info@ avsbm.org and let us know how many will be attending.

 

 

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Press Release
March 21, 2018

Alliance Presents Alternative Governance Structures Presentation Strategies Conference

Vermont School Board members and Study Committees from across the state went to the Montpelier High School to attend a conference designed to help them strategize how best to present their Alternative Governance proposals to state officials.The Conference was hosted by The Alliance of Vermont School Board Members.

David Clark, a school board member from Westminster, Vermont explained, "A significant percentage of Vermont school districts have discovered that there are few economic savings generated by consolidation and that their communities want to preserve local governance. Act 46 provides for alternatives to consolidation, but it is up to districts to develop persuasive proposals to either preserve or modify their governance, but they also have to go before a committee of state officials and convince them to support these alternatives. Vermont School Boards and Study Committees need to prepare if they want to be successful." 

Brent Abare from Groton, Vermont said, " My head is exploding from all the information we received. It was incredibly useful." Sue Meggiolaro of Guilford agreed. "It was incredibly useful to better understand both the statutes, to review the priorities of state officials and gain some insight as to the expectations of the people we will be talking to in our conversations with state officials." 

The morning session was led by lawyers David F. Kelley and Mark D Oettinger, the former counsel to the Department of Education. Kelley, a former School Board member from Hazen, stressed that board members need to be thoroughly prepared. 

"The meetings you have with state officials may be structured as conversations and presented as informal, but they are still part of the negotiation process and they are legally significant," Kelley said. Among his suggestions was that representatives record their discussions, and that if a majority of board members planned to attend, that the sessions be formally warned. He also suggested that Board members do whatever they can prior to their meetings to enhance both the quality of their support data and highlight the level of community and political support for their proposals. Kelley noted that the successful Marlboro proposal was 358 pages long and the documentation by the North Country Supervisory Union ran several volumes.  "This is a political process and a lot may depend on who well you have a handle on your data and plan." He added, "Never hesitate to supplement your material." 

Oettinger agreed. "The people you will speak to have your proposal and will have a wealth of statistics at their disposal, but they don't have your analysis. They don't necessarily know how dependent your community is on the presence of your local primary school. They don't necessarily understand the experiences of parents and students in rural communities. They don't necessarily know what you know what you do about your sixth-grade girls on free and reduced lunch or the different levels of student performance based on how far away they are from your school. They don't necessarily appreciate the value of small schools for helping disadvantaged communities." Oettinger said, that if school districts don't have access to the information they need to make their case, they should ask. "Many school reports take only a minute or two to run." He emphasized the need to make sure that boards requesting information know specifically what they are looking for and in what form. Both Oettinger and Kelley said that for many districts consulting with an educational statistician would be more useful than retaining a lawyer. "The law says that authorities can not place more stringent requirements on School Boards proposing alternative governance than those agreeing to mergers, but you don't want to fall back on that."

The afternoon session focused on the experiences of those boards who have already made presentations. Jay Denault of Franklin, the former chair of the Mississquoi Valley Union District and Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union boards, reviewed his committee's experiences. 

Denault cautioned attendees, "Do not say, 'we are good as we are.' Don't recite any bad experience you may have had trying to merge. Don't insist you don't have any realistic alternatives. Accentuate the positive."

In reviewing his committee's discussions he said, "It is easy to get distracted during the flow of the conversation. It is important that you make sure to make your case."  Denault emphasized that his community's presentation focused on the fact that alternative governance would better meet the goals of containing costs and supporting student achievement and they were at pains to connect key elements of their plan to specific state and federal statutes or to specific Act 46 goals. He said that it was easy to go over the allotted time reserved for the discussions and that presenters should be prepared to be concise and ready to cover the high points of your plans quickly. 

Kelley agreed. "Make sure you have the who, what, where, and when of your proposal at your fingertips. The state representatives have a set of questions they are sending you. Be sure you are ready to show your proposed plan and governance structure will do a better job of them."   

Scott Thompson of Calais reviewed his committee's experiences with state officials. He said that the conversations they had "were freewheeling and reasonably relaxed." Thompson said that while officials emphasized that they were open-minded, "The message was, 'Convince us.'" According to Thompson, the state officials were "well briefed," and were particularly focused on efficiency studies and the gaps between "statements of intentions" in action plans and actual performance. Denault said that presenters will need to explain why, "If you are going to achieve an education goal with your current governance, you haven't done so already." According to Thompson, "They are going to want to discuss the difference between your statements of intention and your past performance." Thompson said, "If you need to, respond that you will have that information and get back to them." 

Thompson thought that their presentation was helped by the getting area boards and local representatives to go on the record as supporting their alternative governance proposal. “We got boards to go on the record... and had a letter from state representatives from our towns endorse our plan.” 

Both Oettinger and Kelley agreed that the political aspects of the process shouldn't be ignored. "If your town is geographically isolated, or your students live far away from the local high school, have your select board and your state representatives go on the record and say so. They suggested getting letters and other evidence of support from local state representatives. "They need to know how important your proposal is to your community, and that their active support is expected." 

 All the presenters said it was important to recognize the expertise of panel they would encounter in their discussions.

Kelley said, "Like any other negotiating situation, it is important to respect the people on the other side of the table and to avoid being confrontational ." 

"These people are all very smart," said Oettinger."  [AOE Secretary] Rebecca Holcombe has extensive experience in the field, she has been directly involved with teacher training and she is going to be focused on outcomes as well as governance. Education Finance Manager Brad James is the state's leading expert on educational finance. Donna Russo-Savage is going to be focused on the law. It's important to understand that she penned much of the legislation that is guiding this process." 

In the follow-up question and answer period, panelists were asked why there was such pressure from the state to consolidate schools and school districts. Kelley suggested that "consolidation makes sense in some areas but not others," and suggested that Vermont's experience looked to be similar to that of Maine and West Virginia. "In Maine, the southern, more urban and interconnected communities consolidated but there were no real savings, and in the isolated towns of the North there was real resistance to the idea because of a lot of good reasons- distances, isolation and the importance of local schools to the communities. West Virginia likewise found out that savings were non-existent and that some costs actually went up." Kelley suggested that Vermont was following a similar pattern. 

Other questions concerned what schools could do generate efficiencies, short of consolidating governance, such as sharing teachers or other resources. "They can, with certain restrictions. Cooperative agreements are provided for by state law."

They were asked what districts could do to prevent individual school districts from being forcibly reassigned to other districts or new Supervisory Unions, and how to make Supervisory Union budgets more transparent to voters. Alliance Steering Committee member, Brattleboro's David Schoales said that they would continue to collect questions and post answers on the AVBM website. 

Don McLean from Guilford summed up. saying, "It was a long way to travel, and I have been to a lot of conferences over the years, but this one was really different, really substantive with a lot of really smart people focused on trying to help."

About the Alliance:
The Alliance of Vermont School Board Members (AVSBM) is a coalition of current and former School Board members from all corners of the state, dedicated to supporting the work of School Boards and supporting their efforts to provide quality educational services and locally responsive, democratic local governance. For more information, contact info@avsbm.org.

 

Downloadable Presentation Materials & Guidelines

John Castle's thoughts.pdf

Presenting Your AGS fmtd.pdf

Topics for Conversations (1).pdf

Barnard's AGS proposal to the AOE on March 23

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Press Release
Contact David Schoales (info@avsbm.org)

AVSBM Conference March 17

We are writing to let you know that our Alternative Governance​ ​Structures (A.G.S.) forum ​has been re-​scheduled f​or ​Saturday, ​March 17 at Montpelier High School from 10-2. Lunch will be available at the school.

Please e-email us if you plan to attend.

As you are probably aware, we ​have lined up two panels to discuss both the legal ramifications of the Act 46 A.G.S proposals, as well as the practical steps necessary to make successful application to the State
Board of Education for your specific school district based on the experience of districts which have already made successful applications.

Please share with board members and interested others.

The program looks like this:

10:00 AM Meet and Convene
10:30 AM Legal Panel, Michael Duane Moderator:
Discuss the legal ramifications of Act 46
Panelists: David Kelley and Mark Oettinger, attorneys

12:00 PM Lunch (available at the school). Meet and trade talking points

12:30 PM Application Process and Recommendations Panel
Discuss the actual presentation before the Board Of Ed, and provide
support for Districts making this presentation.
Panelists: Suzanne Hull Parent, Enosburg; Cristina Suarez,
Montgomery.
Brief presentation by each panelist, then time for discussion back and forth
and Q and A.

Each of these panelists has, or will have, presented their AGS proposal to the State and will share their experience with us.

ASSOCIATION OF VERMONT SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS
Jack Bryar, Grafton
David Clark, Westminster
David Schoales, Brattleboro

---
David Schoales
Brattleboro

“What we see emerging is a notion of democracy that is being steadily stripped of its popular component — democracy without a demos,”
Peter Mair, 2006



Press Release
Contact David Schoales (info@avsbm.org)
Jack Bryar (jack.bryar@gmail.com)

New date for Equity and Efficiency: Alternatives to Consolidation Under Act 46 Conference

The Alliance of Vermont School Board Members, (AVSBM) a statewide association of elected and former school board members and supporters, announced that the planned Conference of School Boards and SUs affected by Act 46 that was originally scheduled to take place on February 24, is being postponed until March 17, 2018. The meeting will take place at the Montpelier High School beginning at 10 am.

AVSBM Coordinator Jack Bryar said, “The flu has been a real factor in our decision. We have had members and presenters affected. However, in some ways, a later date works better. We want to make sure that newly elected Board members coming on board after Town Meeting get invitations and join in the discussions. The decisions being made at the state level about local governance will top the agenda of a large percentage of the elected school board members in the state.”

Roughly a third of Vermont school systems either have or anticipate petitioning state government officials to approve these “AGS” proposals in preference to forced consolidation under Vermont’s Act 46. The fate of these proposals is uncertain. Much of the debate about “Alternative Governance” has focused less on the quality or efficiency of different local governance models and instead have centered around how to craft proposals that will be accepted by state authorities.

While a handful of AGS proposals have already been accepted by state officials, many others are pending. Local school board leaders who have been approved caution other boards that crafting even the best-designed proposal is only the beginning of the approval process.
The conference will include a pair of panels. One will be focused on legal and technical issues that AGS applicants may encounter. A second will focus on understanding, and successfully negotiating with, the State Board and other Vermont state education officials. Panel members will include legal experts, school board members, administrators and government officials.

The conference organizers expect there will be a lively Q&A session afterwards.
David Clark, an AVSBM member and Chair of the Bellows Falls School Board said,
“School boards are in a difficult spot. There hasn’t been a lot of information provided to those communities who want to retain some measure of local control or who have developed unique proposals that would work for them but might look unusual to outside bureaucrats. No one is looking out for their interests, and we are going to try to fill in that gap.”

The conference hopes to attract:

• Boards Study Committees and community supporters from districts who have filed partial or complete AGS applications and who are concerned about how to ensure their proposals are accepted by state authorities.
• Study Committees and Boards still considering AGS as an option
• Districts still trying to figure out how to address their governance issues.
• Boards of SU’s being pressured to undergo additional restructuring

Alliance member David Schoales said,”Local schools and local boards deserve to have the information they need to be a full partner in the Act 46 process. The goal of our conference is to make sure that Board members hear about successful strategies used by other boards, and to know what legal and political resources may be available to help them get their proposals approved.”

According to Bryar, one of the advantages of the postponement is that it will give the Alliance a chance to add to the agenda.

Bryar said, “We are hearing that, in addition to schools facing uncertainty about their Alternative Governance proposals, there are a number of the consolidating small schools who are are being told that their good-faith efforts may not be enough. There is a real concern that smaller Supervisory Unions may face forcible dissolution and consolidation. It is causing additional disruption and demoralization with educational staff across the state looking over their shoulders and polishing their resumes. This is hardly a recipe for responsibly managing our educational system. School board members are telling us they are being blindsided by an issue that wasn’t even on their agenda and which could affect districts that thought they’d put their Act 46 issues behind them. We hope to be able to identify resources that schools can use to better understand and address this latest challenge”

Those interested in learning more about the Conference are urged to contact the Alliance at info@avsbm.org, or to call 802-843-2735. In coming days the Alliance will post additional materials on this website.

About the Alliance
The Alliance of Vermont School Board Members is a growing statewide network of local school board members, former board members and community advocates dedicated to empowering local school boards so that they can continue to make Vermont public schools among the best in the United States. Contact them at info@avsbm.org.

Final Invite to Conference Montpelier

Compilation of info from State Sources

Outline of Presentation suggestions

 

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Press Release:
June 14, 2017
Announcing an Alliance of School Board Members
Grassroots Effort to Explore the Formation of a New Group
to Represent School Boards

A grassroots group of Vermont school board members and educational advocates are calling for the creation of an alliance to represent the views of the over 1,000 democratically elected school board members who have helped make our state’s public schools among the best in the country.

Members of school boards from across the state have proposed the formation of the Alliance of Vermont School Board Members, (avsbm.org) dedicated to ensuring that the voices of all school boards and communities in the state can be effectively heard when it comes to the formation of public policies. The Alliance proposes to conduct a series of regional forums to collect the views of the state's school boards and plans to query individual boards across the state about their needs and policy recommendations.

The alliance was generated by a statewide meeting in Westminster Vermont, in May and is formed by school board members who are frustrated with educational legislation and the role of the Vermont School Boards association in lobbying in support of that legislation. They expressed concern that the VSBA had walked away from its mission to represent and advocate for the state's school board members and this was making it increasingly difficult for Board members to successfully advocate for their community’s schools. They suggest that an Alliance of School Board Members is needed to provide that advocacy. 



According to former VSBA board member David Schoales, “The bottom line is that the Vermont School Board Association (VSBA) has become a top-down organization promoting an agenda emanating from Montpelier. Schoales, currently a school board member from Brattleboro, said “VSBA has shown a lack of faith in its own membership. We don’t believe a state school board association should push so aggressively to eliminate scores of local schools boards, and suggest that the dedicated, voluntary services of hundreds of local school directors don’t add value to our school system. Even more disappointing is their claim that board members with years of experience are suddenly too incompetent to negotiate basic health care benefits.” 


Jack Bryar, a school board member from Grafton, Vermont said, “I sympathize with our legislators and state officials who are trying to develop thoughtful educational legislation and responsible policies. They deserve to have a partner dedicated to relaying the wide variety of experiences and perspectives of those elected officials closest to our state’s schools around Vermont. They don’t have that partner today. It is one reason that so much of our recent educational legislation has been unnecessarily controversial.”

The organizers invite all local school board directors looking for a responsive and supportive membership organization to join us in building this Alliance via a series of regional meetings to be held across the state in the next several months. They encourage board members from across the state to come and articulate their needs and priorities.

In addition to these meetings, the Alliance expects to send out a series questionnaires to school board members to identify their most immediate concerns and to place before local school boards a series of questions for their input and advice.

The Alliance has published this website which includes a working schedule of proposed meetings, policy questions and other resources materials for local boards and board members. 


They hope to hear from board members and local boards across the state and urge them to help create a democratic, responsive alliance of school board members that can advocate for the needs of our children, schools and our communities


Vermonters interested in attending these meetings or getting more information please contact us at: info@avsbm.org.



Rutland Herald June 21, 2017
A new voice
http://www.rutlandherald.com/articles/a-new-voice


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.

 

VPR June 21, 2017
Frustrated School Board Members Form A New Statewide Organization
http://digital.vpr.net/post/frustrated-school-board-members-form-new-statewide-organization#stream/4


Frustrated with the stance taken by the Vermont School Board Association on issues like Act 46 and statewide teacher health care negotiations,some school board members have taken the step of forming a new group. It's called the Alliance of Vermont School Board Members.

As issues relating to school budgets take center-stage in Montpelier, one of the organizers of the group, Jack Bryar, spoke to Vermont Edition about why the Alliance was formed and what the organization's goals are.

Listen to the conversation above. Broadcast during Vermont Edition on Tuesday, June 20, 2017 during the noon hour; rebroadcast during the 7 p.m. hour.

Press Release:
June 14, 2017
Announcing an Alliance of School Board Members


Grassroots Effort to Explore the Formation of a New Group to Represent School Boards
A grassroots group of Vermont school board members and educational advocates are calling for the creation of an alliance to represent the views of the over 1,000 democratically elected school board members who have helped make our state’s public schools among the best in the country.

Members of school boards from across the state have proposed the formation of the Alliance of Vermont School Board Members, (avsbm.org) dedicated to ensuring that the voices of all school boards and lacommunities in the state can be effectively heard when it comes to the formation of public policies. The Alliance proposes to conduct a series of regional forums to collect the views of the state's school boards and plans to query individual boards across the state about their needs and policy recommendations.

The alliance was generated by a statewide meeting in Westminster Vermont, in May and is formed by school board members who are frustrated with educational legislation and the role of the Vermont School Boards association in lobbying in support of that legislation. They expressed concern that the VSBA had walked away from its mission to represent and advocate for the state's school board members and this was making it increasingly difficult for Board members to successfully advocate for their community’s schools. They suggest that an Alliance of School Board Members is needed to provide that advocacy. 



According to former VSBA board member David Schoales, “The bottom line is that the Vermont School Board Association (VSBA) has become a top-down organization promoting an agenda emanating from Montpelier. Schoales, currently a school board member from Brattleboro, said “VSBA has shown a lack of faith in its own membership. We don’t believe a state school board association should push so aggressively to eliminate scores of local schools boards, and suggest that the dedicated, voluntary services of hundreds of local school directors don’t add value to our school system. Even more disappointing is their claim that board members with years of experience are suddenly too incompetent to negotiate basic health care benefits.” 


Jack Bryar, a school board member from Grafton, Vermont said, “I sympathize with our legislators and state officials who are trying to develop thoughtful educational legislation and responsible policies. They deserve to have a partner dedicated to relaying the wide variety of experiences and perspectives of those elected officials closest to our state’s schools around Vermont. They don’t have that partner today. It is one reason that so much of our recent educational legislation has been unnecessarily controversial.”

The organizers invite all local school board directors looking for a responsive and supportive membership organization to join us in building this Alliance via a series of regional meetings to be held across the state in the next several months. They encourage board members from across the state to come and articulate their needs and priorities.

In addition to these meetings, the Alliance expects to send out a series questionnaires to school board members to identify their most immediate concerns and to place before local school boards a series of questions for their input and advice.

The Alliance will publish a website avsbm.org, early next week that will include a working schedule of proposed meetings, policy questions and other resources materials for local boards and board members. 


They hope to hear from board members and local boards across the state and urge them to help create a democratic, responsive alliance of school board members that can advocate for the needs of our children, schools and our communities


Vermonters interested in attending these meetings or getting more information please contact us at: info@avsbm.org

 


Rutland Herald / Times Argus
Vt. school boards seek a new voice
http://www.rutlandherald.com/articles/vt-school-boards-seek-a-new-voice/


NEAL P. GOSWAMI, VERMONT PRESS BUREAU
MONTPELIER —
School board members around the state are looking to launch a new alliance to represent the views of the more than 1,000 Vermonters who serve on local boards, saying the existing Vermont School Boards Association is not doing the job.

The group has proposed the creation of the Alliance of Vermont School Board Members. Their goal is to ensure local school board members have an effective voice in the development of education policy.

“The bottom line is that the Vermont School Boards Association has become a top-down organization promoting an agenda emanating from Montpelier,” former VSBA board member David Schoales said.

Schoales, who serves on a school board in Brattleboro, said VSBA has not represented local boards well.

“VSBA has shown a lack of faith in its own membership,” he said. “We don’t believe a state school board association should push so aggressively to eliminate scores of local school boards and suggest that the dedicated, voluntary services of hundreds of local school directors don’t add value to our school system.”

Schoales added, “Even more disappointing is their claim that board members with years of experience are suddenly too incompetent to negotiate basic health care benefits.”

Nicole Mace, executive director of VSBA, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The proposed new alliance comes as Republican Gov. Phil Scott pushes a plan developed by the VSBA to move negotiations for teacher health contracts from the local school board level to a single negotiation at the state level. Scott vetoed the state budget and a property tax bill passed by lawmakers last month over the issue. Lawmakers will return next week to the State House for a two-day veto session and continue to negotiate with the governor.

The idea for the alliance grew out of a meeting of school board members from around Vermont held in Westminster last month. Jack Bryar, a school board member from Grafton, said attendees were concerned with the VSBA’s role in lobbying for some policies in Montpelier.

“Part of the problem is that it’s a bit of a dialogue of the deaf from our perspective,” he said. “The governor and the Legislature and the VSBA are all having a discussion without the inconvenience of talking to actual school board members.”

The discussion about teacher health care contracts “is certainly an example of the kind of tone-deaf conversations that are happening in Montpelier,” Bryar said. “We listen to this stuff with amazement and wonder who is speaking for us.”

Many school board members across Vermont have experienced “a bit of a loss of faith” in the VSBA, according to Bryar. He said the group is a “great” service organization that provides legal advice, but is not focused on representing the interests of local boards.

“ Perhaps that could change, but right now there’s an immediate need to put forward an alliance for the state’s school board members,” he said.

The group is planning to launch a website next week and hold a series of regional forums around the state to gather views from individual school board members as well as policy recommendations from boards.

neal.goswami @rutlandherald.com


 

PBS NEWSHOUR May 31, 2016

To cut costs and strengthen public schools,
Vermont plans massive consolidation

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/to-cut-costs-and-strengthen-public-schools-vermont-plans-massive-consolidation/

Video features Suzie Hull Parent, a key person that worked to defeat that merger in all 5 towns in FNESU.

 

 

VT DIGGER Nov 29, 2015

Rumble Strip Vermont: Our School

https://vtdigger.org/2015/11/29/rumble-strip-vermont-school/

In this edition of the podcast Rumble Strip Vermont, conversationalist Erica Heilman explores some of the fallout that some rural communities fear from a law the Legislature passed last year, Act 46. The purpose of the law was to try to control education costs in an era of shrinking student population by consolidating school districts and possibly, down the road, closing schools, particularly in rural communities.

Some materials previously appearing here can now be found at this is how it really works