Education Challenges Design Team meetings now open to the public

The Vermont Department of Education announced on Friday that it will make its Education Challenges Design Team meetings open to the public starting on Monday.

The department had taken heat from the Dover School Board and The Burlington Free Press over its decision to keep the first two team meetings behind closed doors.

Tom Evslin, the Douglas administration’s coordinator for the state’s reorganization effort, known as Challenges for Change, said members of the team agreed yesterday to provide public access to the meetings. The Education Challenges Design Team is part of the restructuring plan approved by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor last month.

“I think people felt that having them closed was creating more controversy than was constructive,” Evslin said. “There are a lot of important issues we need to discuss and having an open meeting is not one of them.”

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, hailed the decision. “It’s great to see the government keeping public decision-making in the open,” Gilbert said.

Dover officials, in a story published in The Brattleboro Reformer on March 10, expressed concern that the team would draw redistricting maps for school district reorganization without the benefit of public input.

Laura Sibilia, a member of the Dover School Board, is happy with the decision. “We wanted the meetings to be open for the press and for the public to hear the discussion,” Sibilia said. “It’s a pretty important discussion about things they don’t have jurisdiction over really.”

Sibilia said the state needs to find ways to control educational costs, but she doesn’t think consolidating school districts is the way to do it. She believes Act 68, the funding mechanism for schools, is the root of the problem. Though she agrees with the Brigham decision, which required equitable funding of schools from town to town, she said the way the money is distributed has driven up costs.

She calls the redistricting plans a “power grab.” “I like the philosophy of the Challenges for Change, but … it’s designed to achieve an outcome we don’t support,” Sibilia said.

Jill Remick, communications director for the Vermont Department of Education, said the Education Challenges Design Team has four weeks to figure out how to create efficiencies in Vermont’s educational system that will save $17 million.

She said they are unlikely to address the district boundary lines. “I doubt they would get to that level of detail,” Remick said. “It’s a short timeline to brainstorm good ideas and get them in front of the
Legislature.”

The public representation on the team made keeping the meetings closed more problematic, Evslin said.

The General Assembly would give redistricting authority to either the state Board of Education, the commissioner of the Department of Education or a special board formed especially for this purpose, according to Mark Oettinger, the attorney for the Department of Education. S.252, for example, would give the commissioner the authority to draw new district boundaries. This bill is one of a handful of legislative proposals, in addition to the Challenges for Change, which would reduce the total number of school districts from 280 to as few as 14.

All of the other “Challenges” teams are comprised of state workers and administration officials. Under the public meeting law, these meetings are not required to be open, according to Bill Griffin, of the Attorney General’s office, because the meetings only involve administrative staff members, and, he says, they do not have “decisionmaking” authority – their role is to provide “recommendations” to the Legislature. Meetings that trigger the open meeting law are held by public bodies charged with the authority to make decisions, Griffin said.

The Education Challenge Design Team is made up of state workers, regional school district workers, a school board member and a member of the state Board of Education. The public representation on the team made keeping the meetings closed more problematic, Evslin said.

There are six Challenge teams creating 11 different reorganization plans for education, special education, mental health and developmental services provided by state designated agencies, children and family services, state contracting, corrections, economic development and regulatory reform.

The Legislature charged each team with finding ways of making government more efficient; it effectively removed $38 million from the budgets of the aforementioned government services.

The Education Challenges Design Team is charged with working with $20 million less ($3 million of that would be reinvested in systems to help effectuate the reorganization plan). It is charged with generating plans that will not only save money, but that will also boost aspiration rates for post-secondary education, improve test scores and lower dropout rates.

The question, Evslin said, is: “How do we do a better job of achieving those specific outcomes given the amount of money we have?”

The team is faced with answering that question with specific recommendations, which are to be reviewed by the Legislature on March 30.

Upcoming meeting schedule
Monday, March 15
Thursday, March 18
Monday, March 22
Tuesday, March 23
Thursday, March 25

All meetings will be held 3–5 p.m. in the Education Commissioner’s Office, 120 State St., 4th Floor, (above the Department of Motor Vehicles), Montpelier.

Design Team members
1. Armando Vilaseca, Education commissioner, Design Team chair
2. Bill Talbott, DOE CFO, Design Team vice chair
3. Laurie Hodgden, Milton Middle School/High School principal
4. John Tague, BFA Fairfax math teacher
5. Tom O’Brien, Addison Northwest SU superintendent
6. Marilyn Frederick, Lamoille North SU business manager
7. Carl Mock, River Valley Technical Center director
8. John Hollar, Montpelier School Board chair
9. Ellie McGarry, Rutland City SD Student Support coordinator
10. Rob Levine, Northern Vermont chapter of the American Red Cross executive director
11. Stephan Morse, state Board of Education representative.

Anne Galloway

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