Editorial: ANWSD board's decision undermines our democracy
The decision by the Addison Northwest School District board to reject two petitions seeking to amend the district’s articles of unification, and its decision to close Addison Central School for use as an elementary school and repurpose it for alternative education, points out a damning flaw in district’s new rules of governance: those rules deny residents a voice in governing those local schools. Under the district’s new rules, even if a supermajority of a town’s residents vote to keep a school open, the district board is not compelled to listen.
From a strictly legal standpoint, that position might be upheld. But in all other measures, such an outcome violates every tenet of the democratic process Vermonters have held dear for the past 200 years. Simply said, when town residents vote overwhelmingly for a specific action and that vote is completely ignored and discounted by the governing board, democracy is undermined and trust in that board (and the value of each resident’s vote) is greatly diminished.
“What that (the district board’s rejection of the petitions) tells me,” said Vergennes resident Ben Rule, “is that the next time there’s a vote in our community, we don’t know what that really means. Voting was the only way we thought we had a voice in this process, and we still couldn’t get that through. So we’re left wondering, how do we have a voice, how do we have an impact?”
The district board’s argument in denying the petitions, according to board chair Sue Rakowski, was that the “statute indicates which items can be amended by electoral vote and which can be amended by school board vote,” and only the school board could amend the items called for in the petitions, she said. But that logic is poorly crafted, unless the intent was to shut citizens out of the democratic process. The board should admit that shortcoming.
The petitioners did recognize that the current governance articles have failed those communities, and residents sought to revamp the rules via a majority vote. To deny that effort violates the very spirit of democracy.
Moreover, because the school board has the authority to revamp those articles, by Rakowski’s own admission, it could have considered the overwhelming votes in Ferrisburgh and Addison as evidence of the public angst and validated the petitions with a board vote. It would have been the right thing to do.
What’s outrageous is for the board to maintain the public should have no legal authority to revamp the articles of unification, but rather that the board should operate as if residents were ill-informed and that only the board knows what’s best for the community.
This board, and others, should consider first what the democratic process would rightly expect and condone (and correct the rules if they don’t, or, if petitioned, hold another vote to make sure the majority is in agreement), and take seriously the notion that elected officials represent their constituents. When boards don’t, democracy suffers.