Editorial: School charters and democracy
When the Addison Central School District board (greater Middlebury) voted not to warn two petitions calling for changes in the district’s charter, they did so with significant differences to what faced voters in the Addison Northwest School District a week ago: First, the ACSD has not yet made a decision to close any elementary school in the district; second, no district town has held a vote in which a large majority of residents expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the district board’s decision.
That might happen within the ACSD, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Ripton representative to the ACSD board, Amy McGlashan, nailed the salient point when she said after the board’s vote, “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.”
Within the ACSD unification charter it takes 10 out of the 13 board members, seven of which hail from Middlebury, to close a school. To that end, if board representatives from the six smaller towns stand together and reject board initiatives to close any school, small schools won’t be threatened.
But the threat to the district’s smaller schools has taken on the sense of inevitability because of how the board established its charter and how it perceives its primary duty. In sum, because all board members are elected by all district residents, a board member’s loyalty is to the district not to the town he or she represents. That’s by design — and it makes sense. The board sees its task as educating district students in the most cost effective manner while achieving the best academic outcomes. In that worldview, there are no town interests, only district interests.
While admirable, that very premise also undermines the voice of each member town, and this is particularly true in a district in which one town, Middlebury, has such a dominant population (and voice) over the other six.
That creates the very likely possibility that the school board could make decisions against the will of a majority in any one town, and leave that community feeling disenfranchised and powerless — the seeds of distrust.
The board can avoid such distrust, however, if it acts as if they also represent every voice in every community, and that their ultimate goal is to bring a majority of each town’s residents along with them. Not everyone will be happy with any decision, but it’s important that a majority of every town (legally or not) agrees with any decision as significant as closing a school.
What’s missing are the ground rules to school closure, which could be stated simply as: to be financially viable, a town’s school should meet a district standard cost per pupil (allowing for town residents to subsidize their school if they so choose); and academic standards should be met for all students entering the district’s middle schools. Once those standards are set, sufficient time to achieve them should be allowed, but with a reasonable cut-off date if a school is not viable.
One current problem is that district board members appear to embrace a blind spot concerning the charter’s inflexibility. It was adopted by local vote in short order after Act 46 was passed in 2015. The Department of Education’s website says the act provides: “opportunities for school districts to unify existing disparate governance structures into sustainable systems of education ... designed to meet identified State goals while recognizing and reflecting local priorities.” (Emphasis added.)
As noted in the story last week, the ACSD charter was one of eight that elected not to allow towns a public vote to decide whether to close a town’s school, while 38 district charters have that provision.
What’s disconcerting about the current conversation is that board members cling to the charter’s language as if it cannot be changed. On the contrary, the early stages of any new legislation are precisely when such changes should be corrected if problems were unforeseen or it was misunderstood — and the petition process is the mechanism to do so.
The district board was not wrong in asking its attorney whether it was within its rights to keep control and reject the petitions (which was assured), but whether the board might allow the petitions (which it could), and what process might transpire if the petitions were successful.
In this discussion two things are true, and another should be held sacrosanct: 1) district boards need authority to act on the district’s behalf; 2) the views of district residents should not be ignored and our democratic principles should not be lost; and 3) we must be able to debate differences of opinion respectfully and without personal animosity. The goal should be to create school districts that operate efficiently and educate our children well: We all need to understand there are various ways to do that, and no one way is the only way.
There’s room for compromise and time enough to move forward with no residents of any town feeling as if they were dismissed and powerless.