Editorial: Building trust in the ACSD
On Town Meeting Day, three towns within the seven-town Addison Central School District voted overwhelmingly on two advisory questions to overturn provisions of the district’s charter that limits their town’s ability to have an adequate voice to pick a school board representative from their town and to determine whether their elementary school should be closed.
The citizen-led referenda in Ripton, Salisbury and Shoreham specifically asked if school board members should only be elected by their fellow townspeople and that a school should only be closed if a majority in that community elect to do so. Salisbury voted by Australian ballot, 268-59 in favor of the first question and 241-87 on the second (representing 4-1 and 3-1 margins); Ripton voted 216-27 (a 9-1 margin) on the first and 196-32 on the second; and Shoreham’s 88 residents attending Town Meeting passed both measures unanimously by voice vote.
Only in Cornwall was the first measure defeated by voice vote, and the second failed by two votes, 44-46 on a requested paper ballot. Weybridge conducted a survey on the questions, rather than a vote at Town meeting. Middlebury and Bridport, meanwhile, chose not to take up the questions.
Clearly, the ACSD articles of agreement that were adopted in 2016 did not adequately represent at least four of the smaller towns to their satisfaction. That is further confirmed by the 800-plus signatures members of the local group, Save our Schools, collected on petitions to be put the issues up to a school district vote.
Despite those votes, however, three school board incumbents were re-elected over challengers, two of who had championed their small schools. Why is that, and what can be done?
Partly it’s due to the district’s unique make-up.
Middlebury is by far the dominant community. It’s population of 8,500 dwarfs Ripton’s 588 and Weybridge’s 833. The other four towns have populations remarkably similar — 1,265 for Shoreham; 1,136 for Salisbury; 1,185 in Cornwall and 1,218 in Bridport, all according to the 2010 census. In drafting the articles of agreement, there was much discussion about how to consolidate the school district, while providing proportional representation to voters and yet not have Middlebury voters override the concerns of the smaller towns. In giving Middlebury seven votes on the 13-member board, and one vote for each of the other six towns, the articles of agreement then tried to balance Middlebury’s weight by creating a supermajority (10) that would be required to close any one school.
The articles of agreement also required board members be elected by the entire district, not by voters in the individual towns, which put the focus on the school district.
Because of that provision, district residents must understand that Middlebury’s overwhelming population will likely overrule — at the ballot box — any concerns against that town’s interests. The board has the power to represent the interests of the small towns, if they will, but they must exercise it and use that power wisely.
To that end, it’s informative to revisit comments around the time the district charter was formed in 2016. ACSD chairman Peter Conlon was a UD-3 board member at the time and had this to say (in a story that March) about the passage of the district charter:
“The overwhelming support for unification was really incredible. It shows the open mind our communities had going into this. It also means a great responsibility for those of us on the new unified board to keep education moving forward and be responsive to all citizens in the district.” (Italics added.)
And ACSD Superintendent Peter Burrows noted that the underlying mission of district officials and parents would remain the same:
“As the new board takes shape, our citizens still need to have the same passion for our community schools, the same commitment to what's best for our students, and the same resolution to put students first,” Burrows said. “It's what makes our communities unrivaled in Vermont, and what we will continue to grow in our new governance structure.”
It's important to note that when those words were spoken, the idea of closing any community school was not part of the conversation. In fact, it was the opposite. What was part of the conversation at that time was realizing an estimated $176,000 annually in administrative savings (how are we doing on that, by the way?), and gaining almost $470,000 annually from small school grants and state tax incentives for going ahead with the consolidation.
There are tough questions ahead for this school district, including potential school closings. If the district board is to confront those issues with the trust of all towns, they’ll need to heed the majority voices in each community and the pledges made to the smaller towns when the charter was drafted.