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Four towns to weigh in on ACSD petitions

This referendum will hopefully keep the petitions alive and a spotlight on the board, as SOS continues to call attention to the importance of inclusion, deliberation and addressing power dynamics in unification.
— Joanna Doria

CORNWALL — Four of the Addison Central School District’s seven communities will hold March 3 votes on two petitioned referenda that the ACSD board declined to warn on its Town Meeting Day ballot. The questions ask residents if they want more of a say in the future of their respective elementary schools and how their school directors are elected.
The selectboards in Cornwall, Ripton, Salisbury and Shoreham have permitted these petitioned votes, though the results won’t be binding on the school board.
“Tuesday is a big day, and this whole process, for me, has been about getting involved, thinking about my kids and their classmates, and hearing from people across our district,” said Ripton resident Joanna Doria, a leader of the Save Our Schools group. SOS gathered more than 800 signatures on petitions aimed at changing the ACSD charter to require that:
•  Individual towns be given the exclusive right to elect their own delegates to the 13-member district board. Board members are currently elected at-large.
•  A school can only close if a majority of voters in its host-town agree to do so. As it stands, a super-majority of the ACSD board (10 of 13 members) can vote to close a school.
The ACSD board last month declined to place those questions on the district’s March 3 ballot, citing a legal opinion. So SOS asked selectboards in all seven ACSD-member towns to offer the questions as part of their respective town meeting agendas. Four towns agreed, and a fifth (Weybridge) will offer the two questions as part of a survey.
“I have found new voices to be valuable in adjusting my perspective and look forward to a great voter turnout on March 3,” Doria said. “This referendum will hopefully keep the petitions alive and a spotlight on the board, as SOS continues to call attention to the importance of inclusion, deliberation and addressing power dynamics in unification.”
Back on Jan. 21 ACSD board members unanimously rejected both SOS petitions, based on the advice of their attorney Christopher Leopold of the firm McNeil, Leddy & Sheehan. Leopold advised that the petitioned request that ACSD board members only be voted by the residents of their respective hometowns would, if approved, violate the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause that mandates “proportional representation.”
Leopold also cited the 2018 Vermont Supreme Court case Skiff v. South Burlington School District and provisions of Chapter 16 of the Vermont State Statutes that led him to advise the ACSD board that it needn’t warn the question about requiring a host town to vote on the proposed closure of its school. That’s because, according to Leopold, “the electorate’s authority is confined to the election of district officers, including school board members, the approval of the budget, including salaries for board members, the sale or lease of school buildings, and the authority to borrow.”
The school board dismissed the two petitions with little discussion, prompting SOS members to appeal directly to the selectboards in all district towns to see of they’d warn the referenda as a public feedback tool.
“We make this request of you for two reasons,” reads a letter to the selectboards authored by SOS member Millard Cox of Ripton. “First, we believe that this school consolidation procedure must be carried out as a democratic process, according to the manifest will of the people of the district. The method by which government entities determine the will of the people in our state, nation and community is through the voting process. Second, a vote on these issues can clarify how the people of each town are disposed toward the future of their town school. Some may wish to consolidate their students rather than continue to maintain their town school. Others may wish to continue educating their children in town.”
That letter, along with encouragement from SOS members and supporters, prompted officials in the four aforementioned ACSD towns to place the nonbinding questions on their town meeting agendas.
Weybridge officials decided to take the survey route after conferring with the Vermont League of Cities & Towns, according to selectboard Chairman Don Mason. He added the board received the questions too late to consider it as part of the town meeting warning.
“(The survey) will be available, in the (town) clerk’s office — but not in the polling place,” Mason said.
The board made a few tweaks to the questions in order to clarify that town officials weren’t taking a position on either referendum.
That said, Mason shared his personal view on the petitions.
“My own opinion on this is that the train left the station a few years back,” he said, referring to the drafting and ensuing district-wide vote in favor of the ACSD articles of agreement back in 2016. “I didn’t think the agreement was particularly good between the outlying towns and the newly formed district. I had expressed my thoughts at the time to our board chairman, and when I was told it was proportional representation and that’s the way it had to be, and I said, ‘I think here in the U.S. we have something called a Senate, where there is hardly proportional representation.’ It looked to me that in the end, the local towns could easily be taken advantage of.”

HOT-BUTTON ISSUE
Meanwhile, the Cornwall selectboard has agreed to place the two referenda on the town meeting ballot, seeing it as an opportunity to get residents’ sentiments on a hot-button issue.
“This is a matter of public import,” Cornwall selectboard Chairman Ben Marks said. “I don’t particularly agree with the substance of the request, but if people want to have a public debate about this, that’s what town meeting is for.”
Marks said people feel strongly about their local schools, and are looking to weigh in on the subject. He stressed the board’s decision to warn the referenda should not be seen as a “rebuke” of the school board.
“My bias in general is for more open discussion, involvement and debate — and it doesn’t mean I’m always going to agree with the substantive positions,” he said. “If you’re a town that has a public voice on behalf of your citizens, you should know what your citizens think about issues of public moment and be prepared to discuss them. The fact that it’s non-binding gives us freedom to do that in a way that will let people feel they are at least able to have the public conversation.”
Middlebury officials also entertained the prospect of warning the two SOS referenda. Ultimately, the selectboard — based on legal advice — elected not to use the town’s ballot for matters within the ACSD’s purview.
Peter Conlon, chairman of the ACSD board, said the upcoming votes “highlight the challenging nature of discussing the future of our schools and even how we define community beyond 300-year-old town lines.”
That said, he noted the ACSD community has already weighed in once on the district’s articles of agreement that the March 3 referenda are targeting.
“The articles of agreement that created the ACSD are only a few years old,” Conlon said. “They were produced by a group that represented the whole district, and the process included a great deal of debate, thought and public input, especially around the issue of school closure. The residents of the district then voted in favor of them overwhelmingly. To me, that says a lot.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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