Rebel towns continue to fight Act 46

This article by Susan Smallheer originally appeared April 11 in the Brattleboro Reformer.

WESTMINSTER — Resistance to the forced Act 46 administrative merger of Westminster, Grafton and Athens’ schools continued unabated Wednesday night. With Education Secretary Dan French sitting in the front row, dozens of residents of the three Windham County towns agreed to recess the organizational meeting of the proposed new elementary school union district. They want a legal opinion on the already existing contract between the Grafton and Athens school boards.

Athens School Board Chairman Harold Noyes asked the group to recess the meeting after about an hour of often-contentious discussion so that the office of Attorney General T.J. Donovan could give a legal opinion on whether the state has the power to void the already existing school merger contract between Grafton and Athens. The two tiny Windham County towns had merged their elementary schools about 10 years ago, and since then have operated a joint school in Grafton.

Stephen Fine, a retired Athens lawyer and member of the Bellows Falls Union High School Board, was one of several people who took pointed exception to the forced merger under Act 46, which was adopted by the state Board of Education on Nov. 30, 2018. The proposed merger is not expected to save the school districts much money — an estimated 1.4%. But under the merger, a portion of Westminster’s larger tax burden would be shifted to Grafton and Athens.

More than once, a speaker noted that participation in the meeting “is in no way intended as an affirmation of the legality of the State Board of Education’s Report and Order on statewide school merger decisions” issued on Nov. 30, 2018. Residents were afraid that even attending the meeting, which had been organized by French, would send the message they were giving up their fight against the forced merger and their lawsuit.

Fine, a former Athens town moderator, immediately challenged French as he tried to open the meeting, and French repeatedly ruled Fine out of order.

Westminster resident and retired Vermont family court judge Patricia Whalen was applauded when she said the towns had been “coerced to be here tonight under threat by the state Board of Education.

Read full article at the Brattleboro Reformer.

(Fair use with written permission from the New England Newspapers Inc.)

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Putneypics

3 thoughts on “Rebel towns continue to fight Act 46

  1. Something missing in the discussion is that the towns being forced to participate in “consolidation” would have to relinquish possession of school buildings and other assets such as school busses to a supervisory union, which ruffles the feathers of many and has affected other towns such as in S.W. Bennington Cty.

    This centralization of power affects more than local control of education, namely the loss of influence and power of the town governments involved.

  2. I served on a local Westminster school board and, while I oppose the State’s Act 46 totalitarianism, I caution readers to consider the hypocrisy in Westminster’s current resistance to the Agency of Education (AOE) and its State Board of Ed. This is a pervasive attitude in many of Vermont’s school districts, disguised under the false narrative of ‘local control’.

    Westminster, Athens and Grafton school districts have enjoyed a form of Vermont school governance for decades that avoids the State’s totalitarian control. Yet we never see it addressed. Specifically, in their 7th and 8th grades, these districts take advantage of Vermont’s ‘Tuitioning’ governance.

    VSA 16 Chapter 21: Maintenance of Public Schools
    § 822. School district to maintain public high schools or pay tuition.
    (c)(1) A school district may both maintain a high school and furnish high school education by paying tuition: to an approved independent school or an independent school meeting education quality standards if the school board judges that a student has unique educational needs that cannot be served within the district or at a nearby public school. The judgment of the board shall be final in regard to the institution the students may attend at public cost.

    Tuitioning has been Westminster’s most popular education governance for the 40+ years I’ve lived here, surviving several attempts by education special interest groups to eliminate it. Westminster, Athens and Grafton currently use Tuitioning in their 7th & 8th grades and have the option of using the same Tuitioning governance in their PK-6 education programs as well. But the option is never addressed in the press. Why? Because Westminster, Athens and Grafton, as in many of Vermont’s locally controlled school districts, have their own imbedded education special interest groups.

    Keep in mind Benj. Franklin’s characterization of Democracy: “Two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” Westminster’s school governance is the epitome of a tyranny by the majority. Its education special interest groups have, for years, controlled the money and the curricula. This group has stifled discussion in our annual meetings and misrepresented economic and performance data to support its clear conflict of interest. In the process, the Westminster school district became one of the most expensive and poorest performing school districts in Vermont.

    Ergo Act 46. As education costs in Vermont have become the most expensive in the country, as student academic performance languished and enrollments continued to decline, ‘The State’ has been compelled to take over. Unfortunately, the AOE and State Board of Ed. represent more of the same centralized, one-size-fits-all governance, only on a larger scale. Now we have the two wolves in Franklin’s analogy (local school boards vs the AOE) fighting over control of taxpayer money and a decidedly progressive curricula.

    Tuitioning, aka School Choice, not only eliminates this political grandstanding, it improves student performance and lowers education costs. If the Westminster, Athens and Grafton school boards were truly interested in resisting forced mergers and acting in the best interest of their communities, they would incorporate the proven governance of 7th & 8th gradeTuitioning in their PK-6 grade programs.

  3. There needs to be more REBEL TOWNS. More REBEL PEOPLE. Bring back the Boston Tea Party spirit.

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