ACSD won't warn citizen petitions

“If we can’t trust each other to consider the district as a whole and develop empathy for the diverse needs of all the stakeholders we are serving, then this unification process is doomed.” — petitioner Joanna Doria

MDDLEBURY — The Addison Central School District board on Tuesday unanimously rejected two citizens’ petitions — based on a lawyer’s advice — that sought to give each of the seven ACSD-member towns more of a say in the election of their educational leaders and in the potential closure of their respective elementary schools.

Tuesday’s vote, after approximately 30 minutes of debate, comes around a week after the Addison Northwest School District board declined a similar petition effort that would have prevented a school closure or reconfiguration without permission of voters in the town in which the school is located.

The two ACSD petitions were circulated by the group “Save Our Schools,” whose membership includes Ripton residents concerned about the fate of their school at a time when the district board is looking to prioritize capital investments as student enrollment declines and education costs increase. With 51 students, Ripton Elementary School is one of ACSD’s smallest.

Joanna Doria, a leader of SOS and a Ripton resident, said she was very disappointed by the board’s decision to not allow the two petitioned questions to appear on the March 3 Town Meeting Day ballot. More than 800 residents from the seven ACSD member towns signed the petitions, and Doria said the group got signatures from more than the requisite 5 percent of registered voters in each town to get the questions on the ballot.

Doria had sent a letter to the ACSD board pleading her group’s case. She had hoped the board would acknowledge that letter at Tuesday’s meeting.

“It seems as if letters and public comments directed to the board for the purpose of discussion don’t play a part, and that’s creating a sense of distrust,” Doria said in an email to the Independent. “I’m surprised that not one board member brought up a concern or a reservation about rejecting the petition hours after reading the legal document. I still have so many questions about it; how can they not?”

The petitions asked voters to make the following changes in the ACSD:

•  “No district elementary school shall be closed unless a majority of the registered voters at a duly warned special meeting of the town in which the school is located votes to close the school.”

The articles of agreement that created a unified ACSD back in 2016 currently allow the 13-member board to close a school if 10 board members vote to do this. Middlebury residents have seven spots on the board; there is one spot for each of the other six towns: Bridport, Cornwall, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Whiting.

•  Instead of the current process in which all ACSD board members are elected at-large, “Each director shall be elected by the voters of the district town in which the director lives.”

Right now, board members are elected at-large by voters across all seven towns.

District officials asked attorney Christopher Leopold of the Burlington firm McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan to review the legality of the petitions. He concluded the board could decline to warn both questions.

Citing the 2018 Vermont Supreme Court case “Skiff v. South Burlington School District,” and provisions of Chapter 16 of the Vermont State Statutes, Leopold concluded “the ACSD Board would not be compelled to warn the article proposing to amend Article 14 (of the ACSD articles of agreement), because the school board has the authority to decide how the buildings within their district will be used and managed.”

Moreover, he said “the electorate’s authority is confined to the election of district officers, including school board members, the approval of the budget, including salaries for board members, the sale or lease of school buildings, and the authority to borrow.

“The powers of the electorate are delineated by statute, and include discrete items, including voting for annual salaries for school board members and authorizing the amount to be expended,” he continued. “In contrast, the school board has broader, more general powers.”

Leopold also advised that the petition requesting ACSD board members only be voted by the residents of their respective hometowns would, if approved, violate the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, which mandates “proportional representation.”

The Equal Protection Clause requires governments to “make an honest and good faith effort to construct districts … as close to equal population as practicable.

The ACSD board has seven Middlebury representatives and one each from the remaining six towns.

Leopold acknowledged the petitioners could submit a different request calling for weighted voting by population.

EARLIER COMPROMISE

Suzanne Buck, the ACSD’s Bridport delegate, helped draft the district’s articles of agreement back in 2016 as a member of the ACSD Charter Committee.

“We spent a lot of time on both of these things and tried to come up with what was fair and what we felt, given all the input that we had from lawyers, would keep us and the district out of court,” she said. “We didn’t want to pit neighbor against neighbor or town against town. We spent a lot of time researching.”

Ultimately, Charter Committee members saw a super majority vote of the board to close a school as a compromise.

“We figured it would be more difficult to get 10 minds to agree (a super majority) than to get seven minds (a simple majority) to agree,” Buck said.

She recalled a lively debate throughout the charter planning process.

“We had a lot of heated conversations,” Buck said. “We had people who were bound and determined that the unification process was just a ruse to close schools. At that point in time, that was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind who was on the committee. We wanted to unify to make for a better experience for students, for our communities. We had long, heated arguments over that. There were some that felt the entire control over our schools belonged with school boards, and other people wanted it to be within the towns, as far as school closings.”

Buck and ACSD board Chairman Peter Conlon noted voters in all seven towns approved, by a substantial margin, the articles of agreement that created the ACSD in 2016.

Board member James “Chip” Malcolm of Middlebury acknowledged the ACSD board governance is “not perfect … but we also have to be Constitutional.

“Every one of these unified districts is different in its makeup — size of schools, number of schools, culture of schools and everything else,” Malcolm added. “This conflict is something we have to get by, somehow.”

He raised the prospect of a future board being obliged to continue supporting an unsustainable school, to the possible financial detriment of other, larger schools in the district.

“As a board, we can’t lose our ability to manage what we’re delegated to manage,” Malcolm said.

Doria has countered that small-schools supporters wouldn’t filibuster a closure effort if the school in question couldn’t deliver quality education.

“And that’s where the trust comes in,” she said. “If we can’t trust each other to consider the district as a whole and develop empathy for the diverse needs of all the stakeholders we are serving, then this unification process is doomed.”

Amy McGlashan, the ACSD board’s Ripton delegate, said, “while I know it’s perhaps a disappointment to the petitioners, it actually puts the onus on us to make sure that when we do put forth proposals … we need to be persuasive and make sure we reach a broad swath of our constituents to make sure (board initiatives) get approved.”

Interviewed after Tuesday’s meeting, Doria said SOS members would gather on Wednesday to discuss possible next steps, whether that be more activism, a legal challenge, or both.

She discusses some of her concerns in a letter to the editor in this edition of the Independent (see Page 12A).

“The petition was, truly, about urging participation and bringing attention to the necessary democratic process. Without that, I fear the result is going to be long-lasting divisiveness and resentment,” the letter reads. “It’s a fact that our district, without a public vote, is an anomaly in the state. Most merged districts, 38-8, have it as part of their Articles of Agreement, and within that, 34-4 have a majority vote in the affected town.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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