Dover objects to closed-door meetings
Among other things, the Education Challenges Design Team is charged with figuring out ways to cut the state's education costs by more than $50 million.
The group met for the first time in Montpelier, Monday evening. Laura Sibilia, Dover School Board vice chairwoman, said it was important to fax the board's letter to the Department of Education before the meeting was held, though the board just found out about the meetings and the closed-door policy over the weekend.
"They're moving very quickly, and they may have a need to, but I believe the Vermont public should not be shut out of those discussions," Sibilia said.
The design team was formed in response to the "Challenges for Change" bill, signed into law by the governor on Feb. 25. Over the next few weeks, the team will brainstorm ways to improve student learning and reduce the costs of school administration. It will also look at how the state can improve special education student outcomes, including graduation rates and employment, according to a legislative update released March 5.
These challenges are to result in lower administrative and special education costs of $17 million in fiscal year 2011 and $40 million in fiscal year 2012, the statement reads.
For the Dover School Board, private discussion of lowering education costs by cutting millions of dollars in administrative costs equaled what they called "closed state redistricting meetings." The Dover School Board has long had concerns about the state's involvement in school funding, said Sibilia.
"Dover has been pretty clear that we oppose mandated consolidation," Sibilia said. "It hasn't been our experience that the state knows best how to spend our money... the Dover School Board believes that the education funding mechanism (in Vermont) is broken."
The Education Challenges Design Team, charged with generating ideas on how to fix it, has 11 members including superintendents, principals, teachers and other educational leaders from all over Vermont. They will meet six more times for a total of seven meetings over the course of 17 days.
"It sounds like, I think, a very creative approach," said Sibilia. "I don't know that we (Dover School Board members) are necessarily opposed to the idea itself, we just believe that meetings that are looking at how to cut over $50 million in next two years should be open to the public."
Tom Evslin, chief technology officer for the state of Vermont and coordinator of the Challenges for Change efforts, said the meetings were designed to include just the team members to allow for a more free exchange of ideas.
"The reason (the meetings are not open to the public) is so people can explore ideas without worrying about sounding stupid," Evslin said.
He added that it will also eliminate any potential political posturing that might stifle the discussion.
Evslin said he has questioned the Attorney General's office about whether the meetings are subject to open meetings laws and was told that they are not.
"They don't fit the type of meetings that have to be open," he said.
The group doesn't have any legislative power, Evslin said, and they don't appropriate money.
"They're basically working meetings of people trying to come up with ideas about how to revamp the administration in the education system in order to meet the challenges that were specified by the Legislature," Evslin said.
The Education Challenges Design Team will present its findings to the Legislature March 25, and members of the team are seeking to make as much progress as possible given the short amount of time they have been given.
After the first meeting on Monday, Stephan Morse, state Board of Education representative and resident of Newfane, said the team spent its first session together focusing mostly on organizational tasks.
"You know, it's a very difficult subject," he said. "It's a major undertaking."
Morse is the only person on the board who hails from the southern part of the state other than Carl Mock, director of the River Valley Technical Center in Springfield.
Morse said that limiting the meetings to only members of the team may help to keep the participants focused on the task at hand. But, he said, the group may consider opening its doors to the public in the future.
"We talked about this ... this is a working group and we're free to just meet with ourselves, but all at the table felt comfortable with the public being there," Morse said.
"We're not opposed to meeting with the public," he reiterated, "but we've got our noses to the grindstone, and we're just trying to come up with some suggestions for the Legislature to look at."
Emily Long, Leland & Gray Middle and High School Board chairwoman, said she was surprised to hear that the meetings would be closed to the public.
"Certainly they're professionals, and I think there should be a very lively and valuable discussion going on at those meetings," Long said. "I would love to hear what the conversations are."
"These are leaders across the state in many different roles," Long added. "I can't imagine any one of them not wanting to share their thoughts."
She pointed out that meetings can be controlled to minimize any disruption caused by members of the public.
"I think it's unfortunate they're taking this step, though maybe there is a legitimate reason," Long said.
The time for public debate regarding the team's findings and recommendations will be when it goes before the state Legislature, said Evslin.
"It needs public involvement and will have public involvement," Evslin said.
"We're grateful for the (team members) coming to these meetings and hope people have an open mind to what they come up with," he added.
The Dover School Board was concerned not only with the closed door policy but about obtaining information concerning the meetings as well, stating that "the people have a right to freedom of speech, and of writing and publishing their sentiments, concerning the transactions of government, and therefore the freedom of the press ought not to be restrained," in its letter to the Department of Education.
Evslin said that unless for some reason the team dealt with personnel issues, the records can be requested and will be supplied.
Though information can be obtained after the meetings, there is value in having the public present to witness the discussion, said Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica.
"My concern is that whenever you shut out the public, you undermine the credibility of whatever you seek to achieve," Olsen said. "Going through the process behind closed doors, they risk poisoning the outcome.
"In the public sector, as a use of developing public policy, I think it's very risky and potentially sets a dangerous precedent," Olsen added. "In my experience, whenever policy decisions are developed in secrecy, immediately suspicion is cast upon the process. You end up spending more time talking about the process and less time about the outcomes, and there are potentially some very good outcomes (of these meetings.)" Richard Werner, Dover School Board chairman, said he would question where the team members are getting the information that they are basing their decisions on. "On committees in general, if everything is done in the public eye, people will say 'wow, where did you get those facts? We have a study here that says this is just the opposite.'" "It's always easier to hold meetings behind closed doors," Werner added, "but meetings about public education should be out in the public."
Jaime Cone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-2542311, ext. 277.
Jaime Cone can be reached at email@example.com or 802-2542311, ext. 277.
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