Editor’s note: This commentary by Rama Schneider, an elected member of the Williamstown School District Board of Directors.
It appears to me that Vermont is headed to some major governance restructuring regarding our state’s public education system. I don’t approve of all the changes that seem most likely, but that is an argument I’m willing to say has been had and is over with and I see it as part of my responsibilities to be engaged and help make the outcome as positive as possible.
Over the last five or more years Vermont’s Legislature has pushed for district consolidation and moved policy and day-to-day decision-making authority from the local districts to the supervisory unions. The desired end was and is obvious: de facto consolidation as business, curriculum, special education, busing, and personnel have come under the purview of supervisory unions.
Of course this hasn’t been bad by definition. The Orange North Supervisory Union, for example, realized many structural and economic efficiencies and benefits by doing much of this well before the the General Assembly decided to dictate. I also see a positive in that the above restructuring changes allow the local boards to focus on policy and oversight of the local district and infrastructure. Even in curriculum there is still an important place for the local boards: the state sets the overall standards, the supervisory union designs the curriculum and the local board influences the actual classes that deliver the curriculum designed to provide an outcome consistent with the standards.
I believe we can accomplish the goals of the Vermont Agency of Education and General Assembly and provide for the needs of the professionals in our schools while maintaining the essential Vermont value of distributed decision making.
I would argue that none of this is more important than providing the local community with immediate, direct and effective access to those who make and implement much of the policy that drives day to day school operations — that local control thing.
It is this community connection, the access and accountability — the local control, that is most endangered by current consolidation proposals. I believe we can accomplish the goals of the Vermont Agency of Education and General Assembly and provide for the needs of the professionals in our schools while maintaining the essential Vermont value of distributed decision making. I accept that we are going to have a restructuring of our schools’ system of governance — and it is my sincere desire that we will incorporate the following five values (in no particular order):
1) Public education — Whatever we end up with should provide access to a quality education that is free of charge at the door.
2) Fair governance — Governance consolidation should not be a vehicle for large communities to swallow the schools of smaller ones. We can accomplish this by designing centralized boards along the lines of supervisory union boards. There should be equal representation based upon operating district and not proportional to population.
3) Local accountability and input — Local boards will still have an important role to play for the same reasons local boards are important today. Student success, actual classes, accountability and oversight and more can still be monitored or handled much better at the building level. By leaving the local boards intact we also open up the vehicle for an supervisory union-style centralized board that is made up of appointed members.
4) Parental and student choice — There is every reason to continue our use of Vermont’s system of independent schools and expand upon the current public school choices available. We are embarking upon a journey that will be defined by the rhetoric of “personalized learning plans,” and we should turn that rhetoric into a functioning reality.
5) Accountability to society at large — Vermonters deserve to know and have influence over the educational system they support with money and time and more.
So yeah, I don’t really agree with this drive for governance consolidation that most legislators and Vermonters seem to agree with, but I do not intend to be dragged along kicking and screaming. At the end of the day I see my primary function as a school board member to be making it work as good as it can work. I hope we can continue with some cherished values.