Now that we're done congratulating ourselves on the perpetuation of the democratic principals embodied in our participation at Town Meeting, let's talk about the real and present danger to our Democracy. It is the involuntary school mergers which are taking place right now. While they are ostensibly about improving education and saving money, Act 46 was designed from the beginning to serve a much different purpose, and that is a consolidation of power which allows a centralized bureaucracy to dictate what our value system will look like going forward. It is in fact the polar opposite of our Town Meeting-style Democracy.
The very notion that somehow unelected State Agencies possess the power to overturn the outcomes of duly Warned and executed local elections should be universally offensive to all Vermonters, but where is the outrage ? Regrettably the reaction so far seems more akin to a shrug. I was at my local Town Meeting in Westminster Saturday morning where some of our Legislative Reps put in an appearance, and while they were all willing to spout the usual platitudes about the usual things, not one of them could bring themselves to speak to, or about, Act 46. If the people who represent us in Montpelier can't speak up for Democracy, we are indeed in deep trouble.
The reasons why they, and we, should find Act 46 so deeply disturbing are because these forced mergers represent a direct contravention of the constitutional protections of Due Process. This analogous to the taking of your home for a highway project without the benefit of an Eminent Domain Hearing. In this case it affects towns which are being forced to assume the debt of other town schools without this Due Process. This directly violates our protections under the Vermont Constitution as embodied in 24 VSA, Section 1755 which says in part, "No municipality can incur liability for bonded debt without the consent of the voters". That's not hard to understand, unless perhaps your paycheck comes from Montpelier.
This is the "Dark Money" of the special interests that Jane Mayer wrote about in her book of the same title in 2016, hard at work. And Vermont is the perfect place to put the play on. We are so secure in our knowledge that it can't happen here, in peaceful, beautiful, reasonable, Vermont, where, unlike the rest of the country, Government still seems to work, that our complacency has made us ripe for the plucking.
David M. Clark
Much like Joan of Arc, Dan French has had a vision. Regrettably, instead of lifting a siege, the Secretary of Education's vision of a single school district for the State of Vermont appears more likely to be intended as a complete take over. It's off to a pretty good start because the Agency of Education has already taken several steps, some of them dubiously legal, and some of them not at all, to begin that takeover.
Lola Duffort, writing in Vt Digger on January 10 blew the lid off it last week in her remarkable story about the Secretary's "Visions" That's a story you can bet your bottom dollar was never supposed to see the light of day.
The legal skirmish lines have already been formed, and 31 School Districts, five Select Boards, One Planning Board and a dozen or so impacted citizens have gone to Court to make the argument that a couple of State Agencies, the A.O.E. and the State Board of Education have no legal right to overturn the results of duly warned and held local elections that produced results which were contrary to the expectations of those Agencies.. So A.O.E. & the State Board have decided to just go ahead and seize these schools' assets for a dollar and, at the same time, harness them with the bonded indebtedness of other schools in other communities, and they intend to do it without so much as a head nod toward the basic constitutional protections of Due Process.
it's something Kim Jong Il could be proud of.
Meanwhile, down here where the heavy hand of our putative overloads is being keenly felt, we're still trying to do the things we need to do to meet our statutory obligations to our communities and school children. However this is proving to be a little bit difficult just at the moment. A few weeks ago when I wrote about the chaos that the Act 46 forced school mergers were creating in the midst of school budgeting season, it was not yet apparent that the Agency of Education would be taking actual steps to deliberately sabotage that process by running a classic hidden ball trick. It works like this.
There are two parts to building a budget, calculating your likely expenses and estimating your revenues. Because of the countless number of variables that the State-Wide property tax formula has created, School Business Managers need to access that revenue data from the Agency of Education, and because AOE is no longer feeling constrained by the Rule of Law, it's playing by its own rules now, To use my district as an example, by combining the revenue information for the Athens, Grafton & Westminster school districts, which the State Board has slated for an Act 46 forced merger, it's no longer possible to make those calculations for the individual school districts.
Pretty clever, isn't it ?
In the Lakeview School District, which is the Craftsbury, Greensboro, Hardwick region, the Business Manager has informed the Greensboro School Board Chair that, "I have received very direct guidance from AOE today (January 11). It was clear that we are NOT to create individual budgets for districts involved in mergers".
School budgeting information is a critical public asset, not a poker chip to be played. The Agency of Education is running this play in direct defiance of the law. But it all fits neatly together in Dan French's vision for an easily managed, top down education bureaucracy, the juiciest parts of which will undoubtably end up for sale to the highest bidder or the coziest crony or some combination thereof.
There's still enough time to do something about it, but it's a small window. Or you can kick back and relax while a very determined force continues to undermine the bedrock of Vermont democracy and gut the living organism, which are the schools, and our small Vermont communities.
David M. Clark
Editor of the Reformer:
I first showed up in Putney in 1972 to go to Windham College, which, with the benefit of hindsight, was just a horrible waste of my parents' money, and for the last 30 years I've been doing my penance for it. In 1988, at the behest of a Westminster West educator named Claire Oglesby, I ran for a school board seat. Thirty years and three election defeats later, I'm still around.
I've seen an awful lot of fads in education come & go in that time, but by far the most dangerous and hare-brained among them is Act 46, the School Consolidation legislation. This is because the expressed intentions of Efficiency, Accountability & Transparency have somehow failed to put in an appearance. What has shown up in their stead are chaos, threats and coercion.
The chaos is right now, in the midst of the budget season. If our school districts of Athens, Grafton & Westminster are in fact involuntarily combined, Athens & Grafton are gonna take a 20 cent hit on their tax rates to cover Westminster's higher operating costs and its debt. Two legacies those towns will be forced to assume. There's parity here, however, because the two towns will vote four of the six seats on the force-merged school board which gives them a higher degree of budget control. But that is only until Westminster wipes them out by flexing its muscles later on, since three out of every four of the votes in the combined school district will belong to Westminster.
This is how the scenario has been designed to play out across rural Vermont.
The threats and coercion come in the form of the school meetings about to take place to create those new boards. They are being called, not by those communities, but by the Secretary of Education. It is in fact Dan French, the Secretary himself who is signing those Warnings, although Death Warrants might be a more apt description.
It's been a set up from the git-go, enabled by a State Board of Education, which when tasked with making good decisions about which schools were meeting the ostensible goals of Act 46 in their current configurations, and which weren't, adopted a policy which might be best characterized as, "Merge 'em All And Let God Sort Them Out." Regrettably, it's unlikely that the Almighty will be able to act quickly enough to save rural Vermont from the Conflagration.
In sad fact, the Act 46 legislation has been designed from the beginning to meet a very different goal, which is to close the small rural schools while defunding the larger ones at the same time. It's a power play to create an easily manageable top down educational bureaucracy, in which the actual educational and civic health of small Vermont communities doesn't really matter very much.
This is not educational reform, it's a House of Mirrors.
David M. Clark
Westminster, Dec. 5
David M. Clark Westminster, Vt.
Posted Friday, November 30, 2018
To the editor,
Back when America was Great, the three legs of the milk stool of Vermont democracy were town government, the fire dept and the schools, and we all came together in common cause at town meeting to decide how best to utilize them. Cut off one of those legs and that milk stool will no longer stand, and that is exactly what will happen if the saboteurs behind the Act 46 forced school mergers now being imposed get their way.
And now, after having taken out the compliant and the willing, they are about to try to decimate the unwilling, citing the Orwellian mantra of “Equity, Accountability & Transparency,” which in this case actually means “None of the above.”
Schools cost a lot of money, and there’s a reason for that. Because in the 21st century the schools have become the primary social-services safety net for the ages 3 through 21 population, those needs are often times severe, and, oh by the way, we also have to teach school. These sobering facts not withstanding, the towns and communities have continued to support those schools and their mission of educating all comers regardless of need, and have willingly continued to do that in spite of last year’s double cross on the part of Gov. Phil Scott, when for the purpose of making a political grandstand play long after school budgets were set, he ratcheted two cents off the state-wide property tax and simply left it to the towns to somehow come up with the difference.
This is the sort of backroom dealing which is taking place right now. You don’t have to dig down very far underneath the facade of some of the outside agitators with noble sounding names like “A Stronger Vermont,” to discover the malignant hand of the Koch Brothers, who are hell bent just now on uprooting the bedrock Vermont value of town meeting direct democracy.
When communities no longer run their schools, that all important third leg of Vermont democracy will be gone and those who place private gain over public good will have had their way.
David M. Clark
Sue Minter lost the last gubernatorial election to Phil Scott because she couldn’t keep the Democratic National Committee out of my mailbox. Phil Scott won because he ran a dignified campaign, in spite of his ridiculous “No New Taxes” pledge.
However, somewhere along the line, the conservative Republican national apparatus got to Phil Scott. Some of us saw it coming when he appointed Jason Gibbs as his chief of staff.
Vermont has very quietly become a battleground for the Koch Brothers ALEC organization and their national agenda. Don’t for a minute think otherwise.
The warning signs became obvious last year at this time when, without trying very hard, Phil bent the Democratic legislative leadership over backwards and they caved to his demand to burnish that campaign pledge with a 2-cent rollback on the statewide education property tax.
It sounded good if you didn’t look at it too hard but, in the end, all it accomplished was to kick the tax burden back on the towns. This year, we’re looking at the same play but this time, the governor’s office has adopted a page from the Republican National Committee playbook by claiming that he can balance the budget by using a future revenue stream to pay for it. This is an exercise in the economic theory known as “Magical Thinking.”
But there’s more at stake here than immediately meets the eye. Last week, a pop-up ad running on local newspaper websites featured a resolute looking Governor Scott and the message, “Democrats wanted to raise millions in new taxes. Phil Scott said NO.” The ad was sponsored by a Vermont political action committee operating from the Washington, D.C., street address of the Republican Governors Association. What a surprise.
If you think that as long as you’re tuned to VPR while you’re riding around in your Volvo or Subaru, that your democracy is safe, let me tell you, it isn’t.
The consolidation of schools under Act 46 is simply one overt symptom of a consolidation of power that is now underway in Vermont. It is an attack on the bedrock Vermont values embedded in our town meeting-style direct democracy. Start small, spin big. It’s already working on the national level. Let’s make sure it doesn’t gain traction here.
David M. Clark