Letter to the editor: ACSD should warn petitioned referenda
This open letter to the Addison Central School District Board of Education was also submitted to the Addison Independent
Democracy is difficult to maintain. We must be vigilant at times like these when the seams of our democracy are unraveling. Citizens United, gerrymandering, shrinking attendance at Town Meeting, and voter suppression are all taking a toll. Of course, voter suppression is not relevant to Vermont; or, in some odd sense, is it?
I was deeply disappointed to read in the Addison Independent that the Addison Central School District (ACSD) Board has not elected to warn two citizen petitions. While failing to warn both petitions is politically inadvisable, (following legal advice is not always the same as doing the right thing), failure to warn one petition in particular disturbs me most.
Under the guise of the Equal Protection Clause Middlebury voters currently have absolute control over who serves on the ACSD Board. While one member must reside in each of the six outlying towns, it is quite possible that a candidate could lose an election within his or her hometown and win election to a seat on the ACSD Board just the same.
This is because Middlebury has an absolute majority of registered voters in the district. For example, if Shoreham Elementary were to be selected for closure (please, this is purely hypothetical) and we find two candidates from Shoreham running for a seat on the ACSD Board, one opposed and the other not opposed to closure, the town of Middlebury could select the candidate who does not oppose closure. This can happen even if the candidate opposed to closure is overwhelmingly supported by the voters of Shoreham. This would amount to a disenfranchisement (dare I say suppression?) of local voters and it is not what the Equal Protection Clause intended.
Electing members of the ACSD Board “at large” means that our unique outlying towns have no real political authority with respect to their schools. If one were to follow this logic at the National level, one could argue that Vermont’s single (population 623,657) and Rhode Island’s two (population 526,283 and 526,284) congressional districts ought to elect just two representatives to the US Congress at large (thus creating two shared districts more closely aligned with the populations of congressional districts in larger states). Clearly a bizarre notion.
Vermont and Rhode Island have different challenges, needs and cultures; just as Shoreham, Bridport, Ripton, Salisbury, Weybridge, Cornwall and Middlebury all have unique challenges, needs and cultures. A thirteen-member ACSD Board, duly elected by each town as its own polity, would still render Middlebury a 7:6 advantage on the Board itself.
In the January 23rd edition of the Addison Independent, “ACSD Won’t Warn Citizen Petitions,” reporter John Flowers wrote, “[Suzanne] Buck and ACSD board Chairman Peter Conlon noted voters in all seven towns approved, by a substantial margin, the articles of agreement that created the ACSD in 2016.”
In 2016 I argued and voted against unification precisely because of this fundamentally undemocratic flaw in the electoral structure of the ACSD Board. I did so with great reluctance because I had been a strong advocate for unification for several decades, long before Act 46 made this politically possibility. I favored, and still favor unification for the purpose of serving our young people better through a common curriculum and streamlining of Board practices. (When I represented the Shoreham Elementary School Board on the Supervisory Union Board it seemed that 80% of our time was spent resolving contractual and policy differences among school districts within the Supervisory Union.)
As a life-long educator, voting against consolidation was a difficult decision for me. I was willing to wait though, until we got the electoral structure right in order to uphold deeply held democratic convictions. Others, clearly, where not.
It is said that, in 1787, a lad asked Dr. Benjamin Franklin “what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” to which Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” It is my great hope that the ACSD Board will soon see its way clear to protecting the democratic principles of our Republic while maintaining the promise for high educational standards brought about through unification.
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