Commentary, Opinion

School board is under attack from a national playbook

By Ken Fredette

Editor’s note: Ken Fredette resides in Wallingford.

After watching public input and the ensuing conversation among board members at the Mill River School Board meeting Nov. 17, I find myself compelled to reach out to all of you with some thoughts.

First and foremost: It is clear that members of the board are having issues understanding, in the case of newer members, or remembering, in the case of more seasoned members, their roles. It’s unfortunate, indeed, when members of the public do not feel compelled to act within the bounds of propriety, but for elected officials to behave as if the rules don’t apply to them is unconscionable.

The Mill River board has been under relentless attack for about a year and a half now by a small group of citizens who do not feel constrained by facts. A favorite target has been the chair, both the current and previous. I can tell you from firsthand knowledge that serving as chair is not as easy as competent ones make it look, and I cannot find any violations of laws or ethics by the current or previous Mill River board chairs.

Yet the false accusations continue, dividing the board and disrupting its work on behalf of our children and taxpayers.

And please let me be clear that I learned a long time ago that having a unified board is not necessary or even desirable — diversity is good — but there is a lot of daylight between viewing things from different perspectives/experiences to generate robust conversations and taking a draw-a-line-in-the-sand tribal stance by any party.

Recently, accusations of board member misconduct through violations of the Vermont School Boards Association Code of Ethics have been tossed about freely by those seeking to continue the harassment of the overseers of our public schools. It’s too bad the same level of ethics isn’t applicable to the accusers.

Vermont Statutes Annotated provide for public input at open meetings, and rightly so, but what needs revisiting are the parameters around conduct by the public. Statutes currently read, in part, “as long as order is maintained.” Perhaps “order” should include some specifics.

Then there is a subject of debate over “on matters to be considered by the public body during the meeting.” Clearly, it doesn’t allow for much public consideration if input comes before board discussion on a topic on any particular meeting agenda, but on the other end of that pendulum swing, it’s just plain wrong for a handful of people to come to meeting after meeting after meeting to bang the same drum.

Kudos to the board member Nov. 17, and to one who spoke to the same issue many meetings ago, who let their frustrations show, saying, in essence: “Enough is enough!”

The truly concerning part for me, and many others, is that this is not just happening at Mill River, or even just in Vermont. These activities are from a national playbook. Politicians all over the country are pushing false narratives for personal gains, instilling irrational fears to rally their bases. One does not have to look beyond what’s been happening at Mill River meetings to see a local example.

While citizens can express opinions and concerns about curriculum, it does not fall under a public school board’s purview to issue a directive to staff about what can or cannot be said in the classroom. While I’m not privy to the content, I’m pretty confident whatever was said in the letter from the chair in response to public input at the meeting of Nov. 3 that caused such a dust-up two weeks later was proper; the demand from a politician on Nov. 3 does not rise to the level of board discussion.

In the first place, elected representatives of the people should seek input from public bodies such as select boards and school boards (hence the term “representative”) rather than to try to force their personal agendas upon them. Mill River board members who are clearly acting at that person’s behest need to stand down and focus on kids. Period.

I thank you all for your service; whether or not I agree with your positions is not germane to my appreciation of what it takes to be a public servant. Best wishes to all of you for healthy conversations on this and other matters at your forthcoming retreat and in the future.

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