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1966: Back to square one for schools… again

EDUCATION COMMISSIONER RICHARD Gibboney (left) and Addison Northeast Superintendent Ernest Codding discuss the county school situation with other Addison County superintendents in the spring of 1966. This photo originally appeared in the May 6, 1966, edition of the Independent.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth story in a series about the growing pains of Addison County schools in 1965-66 and the Vermont Commissioner of Education’s ambitious plan to address them. Unless otherwise noted, quoted material is reproduced from the original Addison Independent articles and editorials of the time. Read the full series here.

ADDISON COUNTY — When the Vermont State Board of Education met on March 24, 1966, to decide the fate of Addison County schools, it was widely believed that a plan recommended by education consultant Martin Harris to establish unions around three county high schools — in Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes, serving the same 17 towns they serve today — would be approved.

But things went sideways pretty quickly.

First the board approved a merger between New Haven and Middlebury, which had been proposed the summer before but now contradicted Harris’s recommendation to assign New Haven to the Northeast district with Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton and Starksboro.

Second, the board rejected a bid by Bristol, Lincoln and Monkton to form their own union, which came with an option to accept New Haven and Starksboro at a later date.

But the pièce de résistance was the board’s approval, 4-3, of a last-minute plan introduced by Education Commissioner Richard Gibboney.

“Scrapping an eight-week, $5,000 ($41,329 today) professional study and results that he ordered last fall, (Gibboney) came up with his own ideas on the future of the Addison County educational set-up,” wrote the Independent on April 1. “Coming on the heels of the Harris report calling for three union high schools as well as an education center in New Haven, (the commissioner’s plan) exploded a time bomb at last Thursday’s board meeting. It took some of the board members 15-20 minutes to realize Gibboney was proposing an entirely new plan for the county. And then the fireworks erupted.”

The Board of Education’s eventual vote to approve the plan “struck like a thunderclap … and the reverberations will be heard for some time to come,” the Independent said.

In the same edition of the newspaper it was reported that Shelburne voters had just approved construction of a new “middle school,” which the Independent enclosed in quotation marks and referred to as a new idea brought from out of state by Gibboney and Harris.

GIBBONEY’S PLAN

Harris’s “Educational Center” idea was replaced with a central high school in New Haven to serve all grade 9-12 Addison County students. The new school would include a special education center “for vocational as well as academic courses for the talented and backward students,” the Independent reported.

The existing junior high schools and elementary schools would relinquish grades 5-8 to make way for “middle schools” (quotation marks in the original) in Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes. Middlebury and Vergennes would convert their existing high schools and Bristol would build a middle school for Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro, instead of the high school it had proposed many months before and which was desperately needed.

One superintendent and a single school board would administer the entire educational system.

Gibboney’s plan “would provide the basis for truly excellent education for students in Grades 5 through 12,” he wrote in a letter to the Independent. “In addition, advanced courses in science, vocational education, arts, special education, and strong academic and business courses will also be provided at lower per pupil cost than is presently true of the county….

“Why close out opportunities now before us with a piecemeal approach that will only have to be undone or seriously compromised within five years — at needless expense to towns already burdened with local taxes?” he asked.

The proposal didn’t seem to suggest anything particularly objectionable, given the public debates that had preceded it, and it seems reasonable to think it would have inspired in any other climate an earnest and thorough going-over in every corner of the county, but it was doomed from the beginning — simply because of the way it had been introduced.

DIVIDED BOARD

Half the Board of Education hated Gibboney’s idea.

“The Harris report excited people,” said John Kirstensen of Guilford, “but I think this recommendation is likely to kill all the excitement in the county. We will thwart their enthusiasm by imposing this large school on them.”

Helen Brown of Castleton agreed.

“This is a terrible mistake,” Brown said. “Those people haven’t been considering a large union. This is a different concept from the one we have been talking to them about.”

Robert O’Brien of Tunbridge was furious.

“You have to be shifty to belong to this board,” he said. “Every time we discuss Addison County somebody slips a new picture in front of our eyes — and before I can focus on that, they yank it away and put another one down.”

But Gibboney also had three strong supporters on the Board of Education, including Mary Miller of Waterbury, who thought it was high time the board started directing educational trends instead of reacting to them.

A 3-3 tie was broken by Board of Education Chair Tom Arthur of Orwell.

REACTIONS

Some observers viewed the Board of Education vote as a backdoor attempt to institute the comprehensive, regional school districting measure Gov. Philip Hoff had first introduced three years before and which never gained traction in the legislature.

“For many area people, who felt the excitement generated by the Harris report, the last minute substitution of the Gibboney report is looked upon as a high handed method of making comprehensive school districts compulsory by turning Addison County into a battleground, and by making such a school district a fait accompli, proving to the Legislature that such redistricting should be compulsory,” the Independent noted.

It was reported that state Rep. Marshall Hutchins, R-Lincoln, had refrained from introducing legislation on the proposed Bristol-Lincoln-Monkton union because he had been satisfied when Gibboney said the Harris plan recommended a high school in Bristol.

As local school officials prepared to debate a brand-new plan, criticism emerged statewide.

Charles Nichols, Executive Director of the Vermont State School Directors Association, suggested Addison County voters should send letters to the Board of Education informing them that Gibboney had “thrown them a mickey” by substituting his own plan, which had not received approval of local school boards, for the Harris Report, which had.

Noting that a similar consolidation process appeared to be getting under way in Orange County, the editor of the White River Valley Herald called for reorganizing the Education Department and “clipping its powers.”

“If this process continues, the traditional and valuable local participation and direction of our schools will be utterly destroyed and superseded by an outright, state-administered school system in the state,” reads an op-ed the Independent reprinted on April 8.

Richard Spencer, Director of Special Services for the Department of Education suggested at a meeting in Bristol that Gibboney’s plan would require an act of the legislature before it would even be legal.

Spencer also believed that the Board of Education had meant to approve the MUHS-New Haven merger as a temporary union, as prelude to the final county-wide consolidation — but he didn’t think that was legal, either.

“There is no provision in Vermont statutes for one union to join another,” Spencer said.

But Gibboney was upbeat.

“If legislation would facilitate the implementation of a good plan, we will, together I trust, request the necessary legislation,” he said.

CAN YOU DO BETTER?

The Independent took aim and let loose.

“Gibboney ought to do his home work before he attempts to dominate Vermont Education,” said an editorial from April 15. “Imported from Pennsylvania last fall by Gov. Hoff to replace veteran Comsr. A. John Holden, Gibboney … just doesn’t know Vermonters, and further it would seem that most of his acquaintanceship with Vermont is from reading maps. To our knowledge he has only been in Addison County once and then only for a few hours to attend a meeting.”

The following week the Independent reported that Gibboney had commissioned Martin Harris to conduct an extensive study of Caledonia County schools, despite objections by local officials who worried the report would delay much needed improvements there.

The commissioner responded to the Independent with another letter, which was printed on April 22.

“You speak about local control of education,” he wrote, addressing both the paper and local school superintendents. “Here is your opportunity. We have worked for six months on this problem. We have offered a comprehensive proposal. Now it’s your turn to look at the total problem, think it through, and give us your best thinking. Are you willing to do this? This is local control — a chance for constructive action.”

In other words, if they didn’t like Gibboney’s plan the superintendents should offer substantive, useful criticisms — or come up with a plan of their own.

The superintendents, feeling there was little chance to win over their constituents to Gibboney’s plan — and fearing they’d lose state aid if they didn’t act — took up the commissioner’s challenge.

Read about it in next week’s paper!

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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