EAST MONTPELIER — The Vermont School Boards Association just lost one of its dues-paying members and the Washington Central School Board lost at least a little bit of its momentum.
During a sometimes-emotional discussion that occurred near the end of its Wednesday night meeting, the Washington Central board deadlocked, 4-4, on a motion to retain its membership in an organization some argued betrayed the trust of many of its members by opposing a delay of several state-ordered mergers.
Two weeks after publicly stating he would not participate in what he characterized Wednesday as a “should we stay or should we go” decision, Chairman Scott Thompson cast what proved to be the decisive vote – forging a tie School Director Vera Frazier opted not to break.
Frazier’s abstention and the absence of fellow Berlin board member George Gross created a tie that Thompson observed effectively ended Washington Central’s participation in the VSBA.
“The motion fails and we go on,” he said, capping a near hour-long discussion that divided members during an otherwise productive meeting.
The lines were drawn early on with School Directors Chris McVeigh and Dorothy Naylor signaling they would not support Washington Central’s membership in the VSBA, while board members Lindy Johnson and Flor Diaz-Smith openly worried the Act 46-related rebuke would be detrimental to the district, the board, and the students it serves.
McVeigh spoke first, expressing his displeasure with the VSBA’s handling of the controversial law that encouraged, incentivized and ultimately compelled some school district mergers and its last-minute decision to oppose a legislative delay that would have enabled Washington Central to retain its multi-board structure for one more year.
“Democracy is ... freedom of association and deciding what organizations you want to be associated with,” McVeigh said, adding: “I would urge that we not support the VSBA this year.”
Naylor agreed, arguing a legislative reprieve would have deferred merger-related tax increases in Calais and Worcester for one year.
Johnson challenged what she argued was a myopic view of the services provided by the VSBA, describing the organization as a valuable resource that is the educational equivalent of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
“I look at them as bigger than Act 46,” she said of the VSBA.
So does Diaz-Smith.
Diaz-Smith represents East Montpelier on the Washington Central board and school boards in Washington and Orange County on the VSBA board.
Diaz-Smith conceded the position the VSBA board took on a legislative delay may have contained some objectionable language, but it was well-intended and reflected the view of a majority of the school boards in the state, including the central Vermont region she represents.
Rather than cutting ties, Diaz-Smith suggested the board consider mending relationships while retaining its membership at a time when having a voice in the formulation of education policy is important.
“I think it would be a mistake for us to move away from the VSBA right now now,” she said.
That view was shared by at least one member of a small audience that waited more than two hours to weigh in.
East Montpelier resident John Pandolfo, whose day job is superintendent of schools in Barre, told board members severing ties with VSBA would be “short-sighted” and – Act 46 aside – the organization had provided valuable advocacy on educational initiatives ranging from universal pre-K to flexible pathways for students. He said it also provided the district with dozens of polices – all of which are legally vetted and most of which were adopted verbatim.
Pandolfo said the policy work alone was worth the roughly $7,000 in dues the district pays.
“I understand this is a very emotional issue but I’m asking the board to consider being the stewards that they’re obligated to be of the taxpayers … and the students of this district,” he said.
Three other residents – Paul Cate from East Montpelier, Corinne Stridsberg from Berlin and Rick Kehne from Calais – urged the board to send a message to the VSBA by withdrawing from the organization.
Kehne was easily the most adamant, calling the VSBA’s role in the Act 46 as “egregious” and arguing it shouldn’t be ignored.
“Giving them the benefit of the doubt and staying in actually validates their action,” Kehne said. “If we go out now the onus is on them to prove that they are worthy to represent us.”
Thompson, who moderated the discussion, said he believed it was time to withdraw from the VSBA until it proved it was prepared “to have our backs instead of stabbing us in the back.”
“It hasn’t supported us,” he said, suggesting the board may have more leverage as a boycotting customer than an active participant.
Diaz-Smith said she doubted it and School Director Jonas Eno-Van Fleet questioned the wisdom of withdrawing from the statewide organization that – even according to critics – provides valuable services.
“I don’t see how leaving the VSBA makes us a better district, or creates a better education for our students,” he said, adding: “It seems punitive.”
Eno-Van Fleet said he was also troubled the polarizing issue could undercut what he characterized as an encouraging “moderation of tone” among board members with very different opinions about the school district merger.
“I feel like we’ve gone backward a little bit tonight,” he said.
In the end the board split down the middle. Eno-Van Fleet, Johnson and Diaz-Smith were joined by School Director Marylynne Strachan voting to retain membership in the VSBA, while McVeigh, Naylor, Thompson and School Director Jaiel Pulskamp opposed the motion.
Frazier said she was torn and abstained as a result. She acknowledged the value of VSBA participation, but said she was troubled the organization’s board hadn’t acknowledged what she viewed as a breach of trust.
“They did not help us,” she said. “They need to take ownership of that.”