On June 28, 2017

Frustrated school board members form rival lobbying group

By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger

School board members who are frustrated with the Vermont School Boards Association’s lobbying priorities have formed a rival group.

Members of the Alliance of Vermont School Board Members are frustrated with the association’s stance on the school district consolidation law, Act 46.

In a news release, the leaders of the alliance say the Vermont School Boards Association has not adequately represented the interests of school board members who oppose aspects of Act 46.

The Vermont School Boards Association is a nonprofit membership organization. Its members are school boards, and the group is governed by an elected 23-person board of directors. Membership is voluntary, but nearly every school board in the state is a member.

Dozens of school boards will be eliminated as a result of the 2015 state law.

David Schoales, a former board member of the Vermont School Boards Association, resigned from the organization last winter. He is spearheading the alliance in order to “democratize the process of informing the Legislature about what the school board members think about what they are doing.”

Schoales said he and other board members of the Vermont School Boards Association wanted to make sure school districts that choose not to merge are treated fairly. Companion bills in the House and Senate (S.15 and H.15) would have given schools more leeway and would have allowed “alternative structures.”

“Nearly half the people were concerned that it be a fair process, but when that was done, and lobbying began, nothing was mentioned about alternative structures,” Schoales said.

That’s because the Vermont School Boards Association, Schoales said, didn’t want to promote alternatives for school districts that don’t consolidate.

“The leadership really didn’t want to hear from anyone that didn’t share their view,” Schoales said.

He said the Vermont School Boards Association has lost the faith of its members.

“We don’t believe a state school board association should push so aggressively to eliminate scores of local school boards, and suggest that the dedicated, voluntary services of hundreds of local school directors don’t add value to our school system,” he said.

Geo Honigford, chair of the Vermont School Boards Association board, said his organization is concerned about the formation of another group.

“We are largely concerned because we gather strength from unity,” Honigford said. “We have more power [together] than when we are divided.”

In the past, the association didn’t take positions on political matters, but that changed in 2012 when the organization adopted an “Agenda for a World Class Education.” Many of the policies in the document have been enacted or are under active consideration, such as universal pre-k and “flexible pathways” for student achievement, including dual enrollment (high school seniors can take college courses for credit), personalized learning plans and proficiency-based graduation standards. The document also mentions the negotiation of teacher salary and health care benefits at the state level.

The membership of the Vermont School Boards Association has adopted resolutions based on the policies outlined in the agenda.

Schoales took issue with the association’s push to move the bargaining of teacher health insurance to the state. He says it underscores the Vermont School Boards Association’s lack of trust in the membership.

The association has held negotiation workshops to prepare school boards for the collective bargaining process. That conflicts with the group’s new message: that local school boards can’t handle negotiations and should pass off the task to a statewide negotiation process led by the governor.

Not all members agree with the positions the organization is taking, the Vermont School Boards Association acknowledged in a news release.

Over the five-year period in which Schoales served on the board, he was concerned that the organization wasn’t paying attention to the needs of local boards.

After Act 46, Schoales said, the VSBA became much less open to diverse points of view. “The intense political pressure around Act 46 just carried into having to have a really tightly controlled message. That became really important, and school boards are not tightly controlled people with uniform views,” he said.

The VSBA didn’t engage the membership on how to advocate for alternative structures and other changes to Act 46, he said. “When those

questions came up the membership wasn’t consulted,” Schoales said.

Section 9 of Act 46 says school districts that can’t or choose not to merge can apply to be considered an alternative governance structure by the State Board of Education and secretary of Education when they set new school district boundaries for the state.

In May about 100 people who are members of school boards and members of Act 46 study groups met in Westminster to explore how to apply under Section 9.

A core group of people at the meeting felt they wanted their own advocacy group, according to Schoales. These were people from districts struggling to comply with Act 46, and they criticized the VSBA for a lack of support, according to Schoales.

The Vermont Superintendents Association and the VSBA jointly administer the Act 46 Implementation Project that provides a list and biographies of people who can facilitate the processes for an Act 46 study committee. School boards are free to choose any consultant they wish under the law, but most select someone from this list.

There are specific unification models written into the law, and the role of the consultant is to help the group wade through the merger process.

Some members of Act 46 study committees have said the consultants are only interested in making them merge into unified union school districts and will not explore other options.

There are three phases to Act 46: the accelerated phase that promoted only the preferred merger structure; the second phase that supported mergers such as side-by-sides and modified unified school district consolidations; and the third phase, which begins in July and is devoted to alternative structures, or Section 9 proposals.

Fifty-two school districts have decided to apply under Section 9, according to Margaret MacLean, a former Vermont principal of the year and member of the State Board of Education. MacLean, who attended the Westminster meeting and is not part of the new alliance, said an additional 42 school districts are seriously considering alternative structures.

Districts that don’t merge under Act 46 must show they can still deliver on the goals of equity, quality and cost-effectiveness.

Some of the board members were looking for help with Section 9 applications and felt frustrated the VSBA wasn’t there for them as much as it was for those seeking to merge, she said.

“When you have a third of the state system looking to decide on alternative structures and over 50 already committed to making these applications and there is no help given in that area by the implementation project, then there is a problem, particularly when the VSBA is an organization that is supposed to represent and help school boards,” MacLean said.

Nicole Mace, the director of the VSBA, said the organization will help districts find consultants. “We have not received many requests up until recently because we weren’t at that phase of implementation of the law,” Mace said.

The Vermont School Boards Association has not lost members because of Act 46. The last time the organization saw a drop in membership was in the 1997 when it supported Act 60, which created a statewide property tax system. Over the past 20 years, those school boards have returned to the organization.

That may be because the VSBA does more than lobby. It also provides school boards with development training and workshops and legal help.

“Advocacy at the Statehouse is not the prime thing we do,” said Honigford. “We assist boards in policy development, superintendent searches, legal questions like how do we handle this situation.”

The Alliance of Vermont School Board Members will focus only on advocacy, according to Schoales, who said he didn’t see a need to provide services. He thought school boards could be members of both groups at the same time.

Schoales doesn’t envision a membership organization. He described the alliance as a lobbying group for individual school board members or entire boards. “Ultimately, if we are effective we will need to raise money to pay a lobbyist,” he said.

In the meantime, the group is focused on setting up regional meetings, gathering contact information from interested parties and putting together a blog. Then it will develop a legislative agenda.

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