In politics, as in life, trying to please everyone often ends up pleasing no one, and the effort to do so ends up muddling the process and doing more harm than good.
That is the narrative behind Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P Chittenden and his effort to find peace between the members of his Senate Education Committee who want to extend the time allowed for the state-ordered school district mergers beyond July 1, and those who don’t.
Rather than side with the House-passed version – which would have granted a year’s delay to only those districts that had not presented merger options to their voters – or the Agency of Education’s position, which was to maintain the original July 1 deadline for all districts in question – Mr. Baruth is searching for a middle ground between the two.
His proposal sounds straight-forward: The July 1, 2019 deadline would remain for the merged districts unless the elected boards for those districts vote to postpone the date until the following July. It’s anything but straight-forward. For the school boards in the “forming” districts to get the extension, they would have to nominate members to sit on a transitional board.
The transitional board would then have to warn the election for the new board that would run the unified district. The new board would then develop and adopt the budget to be put before their voters.
Mr. Baruth’s objective is to at least get the most recalcitrant of the districts to take the first step toward consolidation.
But that’s so convoluted it becomes self-destructive. The current boards have the history, they have done all the work, they know all the players; and then it becomes advisable for them to turn the process over to people who don’t?
Most of these school board members have been serving their communities for years, long before Act 46 was passed. Creating the transitional board, then jumping to the merged district’s “initial” board, disrupts the process and challenges the trust that has been built along the way.
If Mr. Baruth – a supporter of Act 46 – thinks this proposed process is so onerous that most school boards would decline, thus preserving the merger process, maybe he’s right. But it’s a backdoor strategy that could backfire, one that holds little practical value, but adds much risk.
For starters, it makes the Act 46 merger issue more divisive than it needs to be. And that’s saying something. If the school boards favoring an extension are forced to resign and the new school board is elected – for the immediate purpose of extending the deadline a year – then the focus is on the politics of Act 46 and not on the business of educating the students.
We’ve made education an exercise in political gamesmanship.
Mr. Baruth’s approach also gives a bigger stage to Act 46 opponents – which are in the distinct minority in Vermont. With newly formed school boards, it’s almost a dead certainty they would use the opportunity to chip away at the law and its impact. In fact, that almost becomes the purpose of those interested in seeking those positions.
It’s also a given that the law’s critics would control the headlines. The majority of the state’s school districts, and the superintendents who run them, are supporters of Act 46 and the resulting consolidations. They are also in the process of running their schools and don’t have the time [or, frankly the need] to spend their time carrying the water for Act 46, or rebutting the arguments of the law’s opponents.
Even the superintendents of the districts being forced to merge don’t favor extending the July 1, 2019 deadline. Why? Because the delay does nothing other than to confuse the issue more than it already is. As Vermont’s education secretary Dan French noted in a letter to school districts, the time exists to put the budgets together for their districts before the July 1 deadline. They just have to knuckle down to finish the work.
Mr. French, and our legislators, also have much more clarity now than what they had before the House took up consideration of its approach. That clarity was provided by Superior Court Judge Robert Mello in his recent denial of a suit asking for an preliminary injunction against the forced mergers.
Judge Mello shredded the plaintiffs’ arguments, and, as Mr. Baruth observed, “If you read the decision … it’s difficult to imagine he would rule for the plaintiffs.”
Mr. Baruth should follow Judge Mello’s direction and add some clarity of his own. He has been a staunch supporter of Act 46. He understands the law’s importance, and he acknowledges that Act 46 is one of the few pieces of legislation that fundamentally addresses Vermont’s challenging demographics, and the need to improve equity when it comes to educational opportunity afforded our students.
It’s a time for Mr. Baruth to press on the accelerator going forward.
This is no time for a detour without a clear destination.