Letter to the editor: Lincoln principal: Governance structure to be better

At first, I did not support Act 46. I’ve changed my mind. I would have preferred that the Vermont Legislature pass no legislation regarding education for three years and spend the time working on a simpler, more directive piece of legislation to support schools in addressing issues of equity and efficiency.
Instead, we consider Act 46. This is a convoluted piece of legislation that has required hundreds of hours of work by school boards and communities across the state to untangle how they might create larger school districts that satisfy the legislated requirements and, secondarily, may actually benefit children. In the end, I don’t believe that Act 46 will make or break the educational quality in ANESU or citizen participation in our local schools. In my hopeful moments, I see that Act 46 will enhance collaboration across our five-town school union.
I’m in my 14th year as principal or co-principal of the Lincoln Community School. The Lincoln School Board and community are engaged with and supportive of our school. In the years that there has been a paper ballot requested to vote on the school budget at town meeting, about 75 percent vote “yea.” I wish there were more than 100 or so voters at town meetings to weigh in.
In addition, when Lincoln’s school budget vote switches to Australian ballot, I will not miss motions from the floor to cut some arbitrary amount from the school budget. I find this an irresponsible allowance for participation in democracy. Making a motion from the floor of town meeting with maybe 20 percent of the electorate there and touting it as “democracy” seems misguided. In a process inclusive of the public, we work hard for months to craft responsible budgets. That’s the time to be involved.
As much as I love the community aspects of town meeting, I’d like to have a system of democracy that allows for greater participation. I don’t fear losing the floor vote. I am confident that citizens will always support excellent education, regardless of the mechanism by which they vote. So, I’d like to see us work arduously and together for even better education in our five towns.
To this end, the most exciting aspect of Act 46 is the change in governance structure.
From my perspective, a superintendent, like a principal, can have an extraordinary effect on our school communities. Presently, the superintendent manages six boards, all of whom do similar work. A superintendent ought to be an educational leader who works with educators and community members to create resilient systems on behalf of education for all students.
Because of our clunky governance structure (local boards, Mount Abraham board, ANESU board, and the Executive Committee, needed because the ANESU board is too big to govern effectively), the primary role of the superintendent is one of a glorified administrator, not that of an educational leader. With one board for all of our schools, for all of our children, the superintendent has a good shot at guiding educational transformation in our five towns.
I would submit that the duration of the difficulty we had with the previous superintendent was due, in part, to our current governance structure. The Lincoln board noted problems early on. Given the circuitous way information is passed up from local boards to the ANESU board and then to the Executive Committee where decisions can actually be made, many, many months passed with no action taken to investigate, let alone address, the significant issues with the SU leadership.
Our multilayered structure of governance allowed for easy isolation of individual school boards and towns from one another. One board, with direct oversight of the superintendent and the supervisory union business office, will be clearer and more effective in function and purpose.
Some argue that small towns will lose their influence under Act 46. Small towns are now, and will continue to be, at a disadvantage in terms of proportional representation. I submit that smaller towns (as smaller states, countries and movements have done) will continue to leverage influence by their citizen’s steadfast and positive engagement.
Finally, Act 46 purports to improve equity for students regardless of which town they live in. This is a noble and worthy goal. Some people in Lincoln worry that we will lose what’s special about the Lincoln Community School. I worry, too. I’ve worked at the school for 25 years, and it is an undeniably special place.
Over the past few years, some services have been consolidated in the SU, and these have not been wholly positive experiences for Lincoln. The temptation, and I’ve been right in there, is to pull up the draw bridge (or close the road) and hunker down, holding tightly to what we have — because it is pretty great. Instead, I encourage us to open up, reach out and share among our communities.
I want us to take the best of our schools in Starksboro, New Haven, Bristol, Monkton and Lincoln, and grapple, join together and innovate to sustain and invigorate what is remarkable and cherished about all of our schools. I want us to embrace what is great already, examine (briefly) what’s not working and get down to the business of creating learning communities where every student contributes and every student belongs in meaningful, authentic ways.
Act 46 won’t make or break this. We will. How we all choose to participate in the education of the children in our five-town community is what will determine our collective success. I’m voting “yes” and getting on with focusing on teaching and learning.
Tory Riley

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