Bram Towbin: Act 46 power grab

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bram Towbin, the Plainfield Selectboard chair and road commissioner who is running for the Washington 6 state representative seat. He also is owner of a wholesale flower farm in Plainfield.

The towns of Calais, Worcester and Middlesex have wonderful elementary schools by any measure. This is due to the dedication of administrators and a caring community. One board member crawled into the attic to personally install insulation to save taxpayer dollars. Calais and Worcester have managed to produce these results by fully repaying loans, there is no debt on their books. How has Montpelier rewarded this extraordinary record of accomplishment? By trying to disband their local boards and raising the possibilities that these schools will be closed due to inefficiency. It’s called Act 46.

On paper, this law tries to address five critical problems: provide equity in education, help students exceed standards, maximize operational efficiencies, promote transparency and accountability, and deliver taxpayer value. The approach is to centralize power via forced consolidation. The smaller school boards would be replaced by larger regional boards with membership based on population; the more residents, the more representation. In this scenario one could easily see smaller towns being outvoted and having their local schools closed in the effort to create “efficiencies.”

One would think this would be a “win” for larger schools. Strangely the Berlin School Board, one of the largest in the district consisting of Berlin, Calais, Worcester, East Montpelier and Middlesex, is dropping out. I asked Carl Parton, a seasoned school board member, why they’re abandoning the process? To paraphrase his response, “Well I was excited about Act 46’s goals, but when you look at the actual effects of the law, the result is zero for five in terms of accomplishment.” His concerns are not only that his school would lose control, but that the debt of the other towns would be forced on his local taxpayers. This fear was echoed by other districts. Under the new rubric, Berlin, Worcester and Calais would subsidize Middlesex and East Montpelier. This policy seems to metaphorically sanction robbing from the poor to pay the rich. Not surprisingly, East Montpelier, with a whopping $8.17 million note, may be more keen on the process. It is interesting that Montpelier is insulated from the internecine school conflict as their student population excludes them from having to consider the “preferred education government structure.” This is the actual jargon listed in the law betraying the bias lawmakers have baked into the process. This is a legislative ruse to give the appearance of not forcing a solution. The law READS as if there is another way forward. Towns have the possibilities of creating “alternative solutions.” The problem is that the hardworking, overburdened school boards must jump through so many hoops that the possibility of taking other paths is an illusion.

Vermont values, however, are rooted in small towns. The Legislature needs to do the arduous work of speaking plainly to plain folks. In the end taxpayers are going to know the truth.


The Legislature, combined with Gov. Shumlin’s cheerleading, sold this bill as a fix to rising school costs and uncomfortable choices. The governor told tales of smaller, inefficient schools with poor outcomes. There are probably cases where that exists and Act 46 is a remedy. In the Calais School District the law exacerbates problems, rather than creating solutions. The ugly specter of town vs. town is unleashed with good neighbors turning against one another. Accusations will fly that each community is acting selfishly rather than considering the best interests of our children. The cause of this strife is a badly written law with a misguided, albeit well intentioned, cookie-cutter approach to problem solving. It will wreak havoc.

The Golden Dome has been in the habit of creating legislative fixes that try to smooth the rough edges of a democratic process only to foment rancor at the local level. The temptation is understandable for lawmakers and administrators. Why deal with troublesome school boards when you can dictate policy via superintendents and the Agency of Education? This mirrors the unfortunate inclusion of small towns in the Act 64 water cleanup bill. Municipal road foremen aren’t known to be a political juggernaut and can easily be coerced into doing a great deal of expensive dirty work.

Vermont values, however, are rooted in small towns. The Legislature needs to do the arduous work of speaking plainly to plain folks. In the end taxpayers are going to know the truth. There are difficult decisions to be made. There are difficult conversations to be had. It is understandable that consolidation of power is attractive to people who want solutions. Sadly we need to recognize that squelching small voices leads to bigger problems. We all respect the work of credentialed officials and those with doctorates in education. The taxpayer, however, gives more deference to the school board member installing the insulation in the attic. Those people can’t be left silently standing in the corner. Their children are in those classrooms. Their tax dollars are being spent. They don’t need a lecture about the process. They need to be driving the discussion. That is the Vermont preferred solution.

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  • Richard Kehne

    Bram Robin hits the nail directly on the head with his breif commentary. There are many reasons why this legislation will prove to be a disaster. It will not address the fiscal issues we face with declining student populations. It will not improve our ability to create flexible and effective solutions that will both improve educational outcomes and bring greater parity to the educational system, What it clearly will do is undermine the most effective decission-making body that exists today: the local community members themslves. :It does this by making particiapation “advosry” …which is another word for meaningless. Is consolidaion bad? Not necessarily in some cases, but this one-size-fits-all solution that has been shoved down our throats is inexcusable. We need elected officials in office that recognize the importance of local regulatory power and who have the courage and strength of character to be its champion. Bram…you have the makings of an effective legislator!

    • Tom Pelham

      Rick….have you spoken to your state representative, Rep. Ancel? She’s been an active supporter of Act 46 and in a very powerful position as Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee to address your concerns. But I fear she’s been more concerned about the interests of the education lobby under the Golden Dome rather than the interests of parents and taxpayers in her district. As a former school board member, I know Calais Elementary is a great, cost effective and educationally vibrant small school. It will be a shame if the state house lobbyists seeking to take more control over Vermont’s community schools succeed. The result will be higher property taxes and a one-size fits all school system trending toward mediocrity.

      • John Brabant

        Tom. Are you saying that VTNEA supported Act 46, which when implemented weakens teacher and union power?

        • Stuart Lindberg

          No education related bill passes in the Vermont Legislature without the approval and guidance of the all powerful VTNEA. The VTNEA was strangely quiet about this bill.

  • edward letourneau

    This article tells the facts. Act 46 is so screwed up that the state is unable to even produce a spreadsheet that communities can use to project their taxes after a consolidation. — They tried to build one, and could not make it work. The only reduction in costs might come from being able to move teachers from one school to another, but that will require changing existing contracts, which the legislature has no interest in doing. And even if they acted on that, the only savings will be too little, too late to solve the excessive tax problem.

    In short, we have people (a government) who have not been connected to running a school for generations, making laws telling people who have been running schools how to do it. People who want to fix it, need to vote all of these people out of office.

  • James Rude

    The only way to stop this is to educated the voting public that in today’s vernacular, “progressive/liberal” can be better defined as statism: the desire to have the state gain greater power and control over individual interests and decisions. Currently, we see this happening in education and health care.

  • Jody Normandeau

    Excellent, very well written commentary. Let us hope he gets elected along with many more throughout the State who will stand up for small towns and Vermont values. Our district in southern Vermont has been falling apart through this Act 46 process. A district that has been a top, well performing SU in the State until now. One Town (Vernon) has already left and who knows what the other Town votes will be when they happen. Ask everyone running for office this year just what their opinion on Act 46 is and hope you get an answer. I haven’t gotten an answer yet from Sue Minter which is disappointing. Scott’s answer isn’t strong enough. From my conversation with Zuckerman he is all for Act 46. So who can we elect to represent us??
    We need to vote to shake up Montpelier and take back Vermont.

  • Stu Lindberg

    ACT 60/68 was supposed to be the Alpha and Omega of making education equitable in Vermont. Local control was lost, cost’s went up, taxes went up and student performance stagnated. ACT 153 produced the same result. ACT 46 has already proven itself to be just as useless. Excellence is what should be pursued and this is done by teachers and parents.
    No government official, politician or school administrator will ever attain equity in any setting. Every student has different needs, different abilities and different aspirations. Trying to impose some arbitrary and rigid structure to create equity upon a mass of vastly unique students is the height of arrogance.