It was a little creepy when it happened four times in a row. I and the rest of the Brattleboro Selectboard and administrative team had come to Montpelier to talk to our political leaders about municipal taxes, but all any of them wanted to talk about was the cost of education. The governor started it off by explaining that our "real" problem wasn't that Brattleboro residents have to cover the costs of streets and sidewalks and police and fire protection in order to enable the regional economy. Our "real" problem was the state's 20 percent decline in student enrollment and growing expense of education.
The governor didn't mention that paying for the mandates he and the Legislature send our way are driving those expenses. He seemed unaware that the bullying education law, the costs of dual enrollment for high school students in college courses, and personalized learning plans for every 7-12 student were going to show up in our budgets next year. These things require employees and time to implement. Quantify these and the costs of implementing the new Common Core, and you have pretty much the whole story of the increases in school costs.
Anyway, we politely thanked the governor and wandered up the hill to the speaker's office. Amazingly, the speaker listened to our concerns, then told us the same thing we heard from the governor; even used the same words!
Our next stop was the president of the Senate. Guess what he suggested? The rising cost of education is our "real" problem, not the fact that we can't pass a local sales tax because we are 200 yards from tax-free New Hampshire. Yep, the same words we heard from the speaker and the governor. It reminded me of the Hare Krishna people who used to come to the airports and chant the same thing over and over.
And the mantra was picked up again when we met with two women from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. You would expect them to say a little something about the grand list, or development, or maybe energy investments. Nope. They went right to the "real" problem of school costs too, with no variation in the script. I wondered how so many people came to share the exact same thoughts.
I was enlightened a couple of weeks later when I attended a hearing on H. 883, the bill designed to eliminate local school boards and force the control of our local schools into the hands of big regional districts. These districts would be designed by a team hand-picked by the governor and the legislative leaders. As I watched the members of the Ways and Means and Education Committees try to stay attentive as more than 50 speakers delivered two-minute commentaries, I realized this was all theater. The mantra chanted by the leadership was driving a law to make it easier to close small local schools. If they could move control of school policies and budgets far from the towns and closer to the governor's office, they could pull it off.
It was instructive that most of the 20-plus people who testified in favor of democracy and local control came in fleece and flannel, while the 30-plus men and women who wanted to centralize control were mostly in suits. Apparently the education lobby believe they can fund mandates without spending any money.
What's really happening here is Act Two of the Governor's play to take over Vermont's education system. Last year he got control of the commissioner and neutralized the State Board of Education by providing them no staff. This year he wants mandatory centralization into large districts that he can control. It may cost him some House and Senate seats, but that's a small price to pay for solving the "real" problem facing Vermonters.
Sadly, the real problem is he will destroy our current system of town school boards and with it the innovative programs built by our creative and skilled teachers and administrators to meet the unique needs of their school communities. Undefined efficiencies and rhetorical equity of opportunity are not worth tearing apart our well-functioning community-based education system. If you're worried about costs, this bill will not help. Instead, stop sending expensive mandates our way and we will stop having to raise taxes to pay for them.
It is a painful irony that the same governor who so sincerely praises the late Claire Oglesby for her understanding of his special need, and her patience and dedication in teaching him to read, will be the very person who finally succeeds in closing the beloved two-room schoolhouse in Westminster West she fought so hard to keep alive.
David Schoales is a woodworker, former manager and former educator. He currently serves as clerk on the Brattleboro Town School Board and as a member of the Brattleboro Selectboard. He represents the Windham County Region on the Board of the Vermont School Boards Association.