by Rob Roper
On Wednesday, June 20, True North Reports’ Kevin Ryan asked Governor Peter Shumlin if he was disappointed in the State Board of Education’s (and specifically his appointee to that board, William Mathis’) actions effectively blocking the town of North Bennington’s effort to establish an independent school. Shumlin, who ironically just signed a bill creating a cabinet level Secretary of Education for Vermont that, in his own words, “holds me accountable… for the educational vision of the state,” ducked the question. Twice.
The duty of answering for North Bennington fell to Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca.
First a little background… Given all of the statewide discussion and recent legislation regarding school consolidation and the encouragement of school districts to join REDs (Regional Education Districts) the town of North Bennington felt that their best option for maintaining local control over their school and avoiding potential closure would be to take it independent. The town voted overwhelmingly, by a two to one margin, to give the Prudential Committee (the school board) the authority to close the local public school and to lease the building to a new independent school, which was on track to open in the fall. The action of closing the local public school would, under Vermont law, have the effect of give the children and parents in the district school choice, similar to what is enjoyed by 92 other Vermont towns today.
This fact left a number of the members of the Sate Board of Education uncomfortable, to say the least. At the May meeting of the board, William Mathis, a long time anti-parent/pro-union advocate, was particularly vocal in opposition to North Bennington’s plans on ideological grounds. Just before the Board tabled North Bennington’s petition indefinitely, Mathis said, “We’re asked to approve this very narrow thing that is an Independent school approval. But, again, as the Commissioner has correctly stated, really the purpose and intent was to privatize a public school, pure and simple. And you see, that is the issue we should be looking at…. I think we need to look at the broader question of is privatization of public schools a path we want to go down…. It is a difficult question and one I am not prepared to support today.”
And, just to clarify this point even further, board member Brian Vachon said, “Bill,… you’re saying that this board has to look at the whole issue of privatizing public schools, which may be a pretty long discussion.”
Mathis replied, “Yes.” The majority of the board members present apparently agreed as the motion to accept the application from North Bennington couldn’t even get a second, let alone a vote.
At the May school board meeting, Commissioner Vilaseca seemed to indicate that this was not an appropriate reason for the Board to deny North Bennington’ request, encouraging them to support the application, even though he himself had philosophical reservations. He repeatedly instructed the Board that their job was to decide on the application before them. However, at the Governor’s weekly press conference on June 20, Vilaseca was telling a different story.
Rather than admit that the Board had an anti-school choice philosophical bias, he stated that the reason for denying North Bennington’s request was that, “From the board’s perspective, the application was not complete…. There was a question about special education being provided to students. They had originally talked about special education being included, then they didn’t include it, so the board had some concerns about that and the lease.”
But this is a red herring. In fact, during the May school board meeting, Vilaseca pointed out himself regarding the special education issue, “I think what they’re looking to do is contract out through the S[upervisory] U[nion]. But again, that’s an SU decision, that’s not our decision…” [Emphasis added]
When Chairman Moore asked point blank, “Do we have some responsibility for knowing the special education needs in North Bennington.” Bill Talbot, Deputy Commissioner/CFO Finance explained, “The law in Vermont is strange, but independent schools cannot provide special ed unless they are separately approved to. So, most independent schools provide regular education, and do not provide special education. That is a separate process.” [Emphasis added] A separate process that was being attended to – appropriately—separately.
If the State Board of Education wants to start a debate about whether or not towns that want to close their local public schools in favor of independent alternatives should be allowed to do so, then let’s have that debate. Let’s have a commissioner honest enough to acknowledge that debate. And, let’s have a Governor who says he wants to be held accountable for “the educational vision of the state” with the guts to state what his vision in regard to this issue actually is.