On January 30, 2019

Women lose opportunity under school mergers

By Pamela Frasher

As a record number of female members of Congress are sworn in this month in Washington, D.C., things are different in Vermont. Here, top state officials are removing elected officials from local office, and the removals disproportionately affect women.

In interpreting Act 46, Vermont’s 2015 school consolidation law, the state is attempting to force mergers wherever possible instead of “where necessary” as the law states, thus implementing forced mergers far beyond what the law calls for. In this overreach, the state is pursuing forced merger of many districts that actually meet the goals of the law.

An aspect of this activity that has yet to garner much attention is that mergers drastically reduce the number of school board positions — positions that have traditionally been held primarily by women. We’ve already lost many school board positions in Act 46 “preferred” mergers. The recent Agency of Education memo exploring the possibility of a single statewide district would exacerbate the loss even further. No matter your position on local control, it is clear that these reductions are an opportunity loss for women in Vermont. At a time when female representation in the U.S. Congress still hovers below 20 percent, the fact, in comparison, that women have held the majority of school board seats is nothing short of remarkable. Vermont’s school boards have been a rare area in which women have not had trouble attaining leadership positions — a key factor in shaping our communities and our future.

School boards represent a key entrance-level leadership opportunity, especially for women. School leadership is where many women first find their public voice, while also honing critical leadership skills from public speaking and budgeting to meeting management and deliberative decision-making. Madeleine Kunin — Vermont’s only female governor — entered politics by becoming a school board member. Vermont’s relatively high percentage of female representation in the state Legislature (at 40 percent, we tie with Arizona for first place) is due at least in part to the strong feeder system from local school boards.

One of the current legal appeals against forced mergers correctly asserts that school boards in Vermont have a larger percentage of female members than male members, relative to all other municipal and statewide offices. The lawsuit notes that by eliminating many of these – mostly volunteer – positions, and by eliminating these specific elected officials, the State Board of Education’s order harms this feeder system for women seeking higher elected office.

So, who is removing these female school board members from office via forced merger? The State Board of Education, for one. Eight of the 11 of that board (over 70 percent) are male. And the board made this decision this fall at the urging of our male governor and male secretary of education. And now our male attorney general is defending the State Board’s actions in court. As an independently elected official, Attorney General TJ Donovan does not have to defend the State Board’s actions, but he has chosen to do so. Add to this that his office recently moved to recuse the judge assigned to the case because she has family involved in school board activities. In a small state such as ours, this is hard to avoid, and by the way, this well-respected trial court judge… happens to be female.

Let’s recall that Vermont is the only state in the country that has never elected a female member of Congress. With the loss of more female school board members from elected office if forced mergers go through, we’re that much further away from remedying this situation.

When a seat opens up in Congress, the loss of so many local school boards means that the list of candidates is less likely to include women. Supporters of Act 46 forced mergers may argue that this damage to women in leadership was “unintended.”

A more important measure is whether it is systemic, systematic, and avoidable. The answer to all three is yes.

If ever there were a time to tell our (mostly male) leaders that they should not force unnecessary mergers that remove women from elected office, now is that time. If you agree, please contact Gov. Phil Scott and Attorney General TJ Donovan. Tell them to stop the forced mergers and to keep the wonderful female school board members (and their male colleagues, who are also great) in their duly elected offices. Tell them that local school boards are important, and that now is the time for more female officeholders, not fewer.

Pamela Fraser is a member of the Windsor Central Modified Unified Union School District Board. She is an artist, writer and associate professor of studio arts at the University of Vermont. She lives in Barnard with her husband and son.

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