Commentary

Phil Taylor: A school consolidation that worked — in spite of state control

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Phil Taylor, who lives in Wilmington with his wife and three children. He is a school board director for the Twin Valley Schools and was one of several board members and administrators who lead the Twin Valley School’s consolidation and construction process.

Several years ago House Speaker Shap Smith expended a considerable amount of his budget to put together an education summit for the Legislature. It was exciting to hear the focus was on 21st century learning because it was a discussion the Legislature needed to hear. The main speaker was Tony Wagner, a respected proponent for teaching kids the 21st century skills that are essential for real world success.

I wasn’t able to attend this event. I was too busy as a school board member, helping to get our newly consolidated elementary school back on line after major construction. I asked a legislator what he thought about Wagner’s presentation on 21st century skills and the need for innovation. He replied, “It was great. Wagner told the audience of legislators that we have a great opportunity before us. We are a small state, we can change the model of education and become an example to the nation of how education can change to meet the needs of the 21st century.”

He was enthusiastic and clearly a champion of 21st century thinking. But, somewhat defeatedly, he said, “And then the legislative session started and everyone went back to doing the same thing — nothing changed.” My hopefulness about the prospect of government changing to adapt to this new century diminished as well. Many Vermonters, as many Americans, feel that government is failing in the 21st century. Perhaps it is because our legislators and our citizens need to radically change their thinking about governance this new era.

In Act 46, our Legislature focuses exclusively on the issue of school boards being too small yet the question is never asked: Is Vermont too small a state to be taking over the responsibilities of education that are rightfully due the citizens? Increasingly, educational powers and control are invested in the state and its Agency of Education yet the agency’s staffing and resources are grossly inadequate to function effectively. This lack of capacity is creating a bottleneck of indecision and unresponsiveness to the very schools it is supposed to oversee. We are witnessing a collision of 20th century government merging into the fast lane of a complex 21st century.

Almost 20 years ago the Vermont Supreme Court made a great decision: That equal access to education was essential the preservation of democracy. Educated citizens were the cornerstone of a free society. It was this citizenry, through its civic service, that limited government could function most effectively. Despite this affirmation of self governance from the Brigham decision, Vermont’s Act 46 is taking us away from those constitutional ideals by diminishing the value of self-governance by educated citizens.

The notion that the greatest form of government — that which governs the least — is predicated on the principle of self-governance. This is not an abandonment of government’s duties but, an expansion of governing responsibilities to the citizens of the state. The greatest governments are those that have entrusted its people to play a vital role in the management of civic services. This should be the hallmark of Vermont’s state governing model because it emphasizes local leadership over legislative control.

A year and a half ago Twin Valley completed the consolidation efforts of construction, renovation, staffing reductions and closing a school building. With cost eliminations, we initially reduced the annual budget by about $450,000 a year. This year, acknowledging some decline in enrollment, that savings continues and our budget is approximately $700,000 less that it was three years ago. Even so, we have bond payments that offset a good portion of those savings. Most importantly, we became a uniform preK-12 program that that is guided by one set of core values and district-wide mission curated from the community and overseen by one school board.

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This is the self-government that our founders intended. It was a consolidation effort that could never have been accomplished by the state. It was through the citizens of the state that we were successful. Vermont government is too impersonal, cumbersome and distant to serve such local efforts. Yet, now the Legislature has deemed it wise to remove these board members because they are an impediment to educational opportunities. Something is very wrong with that thinking.

We feel as if we are under the thumb of a paternal government that has the dysfunctional relationship of a disapproving parent, never satisfied with their child’s hard work and initiative.

 

In reality our greatest hindrance was the State of Vermont. It took us three legislative changes to remove statutory roadblocks to make this consolidation happen. Even now, the frustration with the AOE continues. During construction the board reduced the size of the new gym and eliminated the improvements on the playing fields to put more money towards improving the classrooms. We reasoned we could use the gym and locker rooms at the vacated school to make the sports schedule work. However, we were prevented from using these space by the AOE because we signed a financial aid contract agreeing not to use the vacated building “as a school.” So now, our basketball players are getting home at 11 p.m. because of a tight gym schedule. Soccer teams can’t use the locker rooms though we need the extra field. Even the supervisory union’s intensive needs program is prevented from using the old building, despite the fact that the rent is cheaper and they are currently crowded into a residential building that doesn’t meet their needs.

None of us at Twin Valley could ever conceive of abandoning consolidation — a decision we made of our own free will — and reusing the old building “as a school.” Vermont’s drive for control of something so foolish, in turn causes them to deprive our students of the equal education access Vermont so emphatically champions.

Our Twin Valley School Board believed the state saw us as a “poster child” for successful school and school board consolidation. We have done far more than what is being proposed in Addison’s Supervisory Union to satisfy the requirements of Act 46 — become a K-12 school system with one board. But, because we are much smaller in size, all our previous consolidation efforts don’t count in the Act 46 equation and we are told to consolidate even more. It appears that we have become a cautionary tale for school consolidation. We feel as if we are under the thumb of a paternal government that has the dysfunctional relationship of a disapproving parent, never satisfied with their child’s hard work and initiative.

As much as I want to condemn and castigate the Legislature and AOE for their actions, I have to assume they have good intentions. I have to believe the problem is rooted in a 20th century thinking that is blind to the need for change and fails to recognize that government isn’t very good at governing complex systems.

Vermont, more than most states, desperately needs to transform itself into a system of governing that is consistent with 21st century models of organization. It is far too small and can not financially sustain centralized control like other larger states. Our state needs to abandon the notion that we can keep governing complex systems like education through an outdated 20th century system of complex regulations. It is unrealistic and unsustainable to believe that the best government is one which controls all the parts of the system. Only those who understand this reality of a new age see that the best system of organization is one where all the parts are self-organized to play their vital role in service with the whole system.

In many 21st century organizations the practice of limited oversight and organic leadership is commonplace. Middle-management has vanished from the corporate structure and has been supplanted with leadership teams. In our schools, teachers lead themselves through Professional Learning Communities where leadership is organic, shared and collaborative. Gone is the notion that top down, command and control leadership is efficient or even financially viable. Corporations and principals have learned what government needs to practice: constant regulation and management of groups is costly, burdensome and disenfranchising. It is far better to entrust and empower to achieve accountability than to take on the role of a paternal government.

It is far more effective to build leadership capacity than to assume executive control through a central system.

As many European nations have discovered, a complex system of schools function most effectively when they are given local control to respond adaptively to each school’s unique problems and needs, and yet, still work toward national standards, rightly established by the state. School leadership — our principals — must be given the freedom to accomplish these goals according to the school’s timeline, priorities and leadership decisions.

Vermont’s system of accountability and control give rise to an exorbitant amount of paperwork, reporting and oversight thus creating the need for so many supervisory unions. Much of what ails Vermont society is addressed through unfunded legislative initiatives that become the responsibility of the school without much concern for the primary mission of education or the additional cost. It is this competition for time and resources, between state initiatives and school leadership that impedes and detract schools from achieving the outcomes the state has set forth.

It is a flawed premise to believe that complex problems can be solved by increasingly complex regulations and dependence on government authority. The art of governing for the 21st century lies in recognizing how the State of Vermont can govern better as a coordinating rather than controlling body. Vermont needs to embrace the idea that the more governance responsibility it shares, the better it can serve the needs of the governed.

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Trusted, quality reporting about all aspects of my beloved home state, which I miss dearly.

Lesley Chevalier, Denver, CO


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