Letter to the editor: Could closing smaller schools be unconstitutional?

Editor’s note: After this letter was published but before it was widely distributed, the writer sent in a version of his letter that was slightly altered. Here is the updated version:
Dear Friends,
I write to you now with sincere hope that we have shared ambition to find a truth together, aimed towards conversational meaning-making and away from pitting one’s values against another’s. I want to share some emergent thinking I feel has been absent or misappropriated in a sea of conversations about the potential school closures in Addison Central School District (ACSD).
I’m a resident of Ripton, which is part of ACSD where the board of directors has set its sight on closing one or more schools in our seven-town district. The decision by the school board to close at least one, and up to six schools, has placed the residents of the seven-member district in a difficult, multifaceted and values-laden minefield about taxes, class sizes, pedagogy, and community identity. By its very design, it pits the citizens of one town against those of another. This manufactured and manicured argument, orchestrated with the assistance of an outside consultant who will take his paycheck tomorrow and head to the next district, is disheartening at best. Yet, I feel inspired to see others raise their voices and share ideas with fellow residents and neighbors, even if it’s hard to collect evidence that someone, anyone, is really listening.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the legal landscape upon which this community dialogue has found itself, and I hope this letter moves away, for a moment, from those values-driven debates and contemplates additional questions about law, rights, responsibility, and authority.
The framers of Vermont’s Constitutionenshrined education as a right for all. It appears as the only public service in the entire document (Section 68) and is included “to encourage virtue and prevent vice.” In addition to identifying the importance of education, the constitution directs that schools are conveniently located within each town: “a competent number of schools ought to be maintained in each town unless the general assembly permits other provisions for the convenient instruction of youth.”
The language seems to make clear that only Vermont’s legislature has the authority to permit “other provisions” than having “a competent number of schools… in each town… for the convenient instruction of youth.” While the school board members are surely elected leaders, they are not Vermont’s General Assembly.
When I’ve asked educational leaders near and farther afield about how they perceive a school board to have the authority to shutter the only school in a town, they have pointed to Act 46 as the legislation that allocated this authority to school boards. Act 46 is “an act relating to making amendments to education funding, education spending, and education governance.” And, you might draw similar conclusions if you only read the first sentence of the act’s summary: “This act is intended to move the State toward more sustainable models of education governance by July 1, 2019 that, among other things, provide substantial equity in the quality and variety of educational opportunities and maximize operational efficiencies. Included in the act.”
While it’s a simple assumption to equate “sustainable models” and “operational efficiencies” with closing schools, the intention of the act is more complex and quite the opposite. It specifically considers those “operational efficiencies” at the governance level as ways to empower small schools. Act 46 is an act about consolidating governance, not schools, and anyone who readsthe full-text of the legislationwill have little doubt about this conclusion. Section three (a description of the intent of the act) reads, “(a) It is not the State’s intent to close schools and nothing in this act shall be construed to require, encourage, or contemplate the closure of schools in Vermont.”
It goes even farther. The next paragraph clearly states that governance consolidation is a way to empower small schools and in fact it is a consolidated governance structure that makes small schools even more viable: “(b) As stated in subsection 1(i) of this act, it is not the State’s intent to close its small schools, but rather to ensure that those schools have the opportunity to enjoy the expanded educational opportunities and economies of scale that are available to schools within larger, more flexible governance models.”
If the Vermont Constitution has enshrined the right for every town and every resident to have a school in their own community and act 46 has not allocated the authority from the Vermont General Assembly to local schools boards, I wonder if a district considering shuttering any school is considering an unconstitutional act.
Shared respectfully for your consideration to encourage virtue and prevent vice,
Tim O’Leary, Ripton

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