Act 46, The VEHI Controversy, And The Alliance
In recent years Vermont educational policy has become the subject of headlines and Vermont school board members have found themselves on the defensive, without anyone to advocate on their behalf.
For example, Act 46 was developed to eliminate the majority of locally elected school boards, but the Vermont School Board Association , which should have polled and advocated for the views of that state’s board members on the subject, became a force for eliminating the boards they were supposed to represent. Town boards that wished to explore so-called “alternative models” to forced consolidation found that their own membership organization that oppsed them!
Imagine if the American Bar Association began to trash the legal profession and argued that lawyers needed to be elimiated from that nation’s courts.
Whatever one thinks about the merits of the law, the reality is that this action illustrated the degree to which the VSBA could no longer act as the sole representative of the state’s school boards. Most education officials appreciate at organization’s many capabilities, but they also recognize the VSBA has evolved into an independent consulting company and service bureau that acts as an agency of state government, instead of a single-minded membership organization designed to advocate on behalf of the state’s elected school board members and support their varied approaches to governance.
A Meeting to Help School Boards
At a meeting in Southern Vermont this Spring, representatives from across the state met to try and determine how to respond to Act 46 and how to provide the services to towns looking for guidance as to alternative structures- guidance that the VSBA in its newly adopted role as enforcer of state bureaucrat’s preferred consolidation models, seemed unwilling to provide.
In those discussions, members asked, “How did we get to this point? How is it that we have been shut out of discussions at the state level? Why do we have no voice before the legislature? Why do state agencies seem so misinformed about our needs? Why on earth do we find our own association advocating against more than half of the state’s elected school board members?
Who speaks for us?"
The VEHI Issue
During the meeting, discussions occasionally drifted to the subject of a new health insurance plan being promoted for school employees.
A controversy had erupted. The new state government suggested that local school board members, among them business owners, accountants, medical professionals and even professional benefits managers, board members who had studied the insurance program in detail for months, might not be competent to negotiate this part of the their labor contracts.
To the amazement of board members across the state, and without asking , the VSBA agreed that their own members might not have the necessary skills.
When members of the the state legislature objected, the Governor then suggested that the union officials should negotiate not with local boards but with the VSBA!
A school librarian, surveying the controversy said, she “really wished the governor and the VSBA would spend a little more time doing their homework.”
Back at the Westminster meeting attendees wondered whether part of that homework should include asking board members their opinion on the matter.
As one attendee said, “when was the last time the VSBA ever asked school board members about anything ?
The Need For A New Voice
In the breakout discussions that followed, there was broad agreement that these types of controversies showed why it was necessary for school boards to speak up and that it was time to explore developing a new organization.
School Board member Dan Macarthur said, “It is crucial that we, as local boards, start working on and sending resolutions on these issues, that represent our views.”
There was broad agreement that the VSBA was not in a position to do that. Association meeting were frequently in the middle of the day, making it difficult for most board members to participate. The process for getting a resolution before local school boards was cumbersome and rarely used. There were obvious conflicts between providing advocacy on behalf of board members and acting as an independent professional services organization with links to school administrators and state agencies. An association cannot simultaneously empower communities and local school boards to do what those boards think is best, and at the same time coerce those boards into doing something that outside agencies think is good for them.