By Peter D’Auria/VTDigger
Gov. Phil Scott has signed two important bills affecting schools statewide. One create a one-year pilot program of free breakfast and lunch for Vermont students and the other bans offensive school mascots.
The governor’s signatures represent victories for anti-hunger advocates and for activists who have pushed to retire mascots that stereotype marginalized communities, most visibly Indigenous people. The law is likely to apply to the recently reinstated Rutland Raiders mascot, but the school board won’t discuss the topic again until August.
During the pandemic, federal dollars paid for free school meals for students. But legislation extending that program has stalled in the U.S. Senate, and money is expected to run out before the upcoming school year.
Backed by the nonprofit Hunger Free Vermont, legislators proposed using surplus education fund money to extend the program through the next school year. Lawmakers approved S.100, a plan to create a $29 million, one-year program to provide free breakfast and lunch to Vermont students who attend public school, or independent schools with public tuition money.
Scott initially appeared unenthusiastic about the plan, suggesting that funding a one-year pilot might lead to future tax hikes.
“Creating a new universal program with one-time money could, as the Legislature has discussed, lead to regressive tax increases that in part pay for meals for children from affluent families who do not need the financial help,” Scott spokesperson Jason Maulucci said in late April.
But on Tuesday, Scott signed the bill anyway.
“As the Governor has said, he supports the state doing more to help vulnerable families in need — but he will not support forcing working families to pay more in taxes to essentially pay for the more affluent to get free meals,” Maulucci said Tuesday in an email. “But, that will be a debate for next year if the Legislature chooses to pursue that path.”
Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, said the organization was “thrilled” at the news of the governor’s decision. “We’re confident that universal school meals is going to prove its value in the coming year, and that the Legislature will make it a permanent program,” she said.
Scott also signed S.139, which will require the Vermont Agency of Education to create a “nondiscriminatory school branding policy.”
That policy will prohibit schools from having mascots or other identifying materials based on “the race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity of any person or group of persons,” or any person or group “associated with the repression of others.”
That bill was introduced just days after the Rutland School Board voted to reinstate the high school’s controversial Native American-themed mascot, the Raiders.
Lawmakers approved the proposal by a comfortable margin, but not before it sparked a debate about local control. Opponents argued that the bill would undermine school districts’ ability to make their own decisions and policies.
“Every year, more and more control is taken by this building, and by this town, and by officials in our government in Montpelier,” outgoing Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, said of the bill during a floor debate earlier this month.
But the bill’s supporters, including Indigenous Vermonters, argued that offensive mascots inflict psychological harm on students, especially those who belong to the communities being stereotyped.
“When we as a society marginalize and shape human beings into caricatures, we are complicit in the violence against them, metaphorically and literally,” Melody Walker Brook, a citizen of the Elnu Abenaki, told lawmakers in submitted testimony in February.