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Editorial: Not So Great Expectations

Normally we turn to Dickens to read about hardhearted adults displaying callous indifference to the plight of children. No such resort to fiction was needed last week, though, as first Lebanon school officials and then the executive board of the teachers union placed adherence to policy over the best interests of an 8-year-old boy. Only the kindness of a stranger provided a happy ending.

As staff writer David Corriveau reported in a series of stories last week, Lebanon School Superintendent Gail Paludi decreed that April 11 would be Lucian Vigneault’s last day at the Hanover Street School unless the third-grader’s father paid tuition to cover the last two months of the school year.

This circumstance arose when the father, Edmund Vigneault, of Windsor, was awarded full legal custody of his sons in March after their mother, a Lebanon resident, suffered a serious illness. While the parents shared custody, Lucian was allowed to attend Lebanon schools without charge even though he had been living in Windsor since October; when custody changed, the welcome mat was withdrawn unless tuition, amounting to $5,152, was paid.

Paludi invoked a 2011 School Board policy that requires tuition to be charged when the superintendent allows non-resident students to go to school in Lebanon — although the policy allows exceptions to be made on a case-by-case basis. Paludi first tried to get Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union to pay up. Superintendent David Baker declined, pointing out the obvious: that Lebanon apparently was incurring no additional expense by keeping Lucian enrolled for the remainder of the year. He said that if the tables were turned and it was in the best interest of the child, his supervisory union would simply waive the tuition for such a short period.

That bit of sweet reasonableness did not move the Lebanon School Board, which compounded Paludi’s bureaucratic pettifoggery by declining without comment to hear an appeal by Vigneault. He said he didn’t have the money to pay and wanted his son to stay in a school where he was happy for the remainder of the year, especially given that he had attended four schools in three years.

“I feel bad for the child to begin with,” board Chairman Jeff Peavey told Corriveau, “but it was our policy.” Policies, of course, are only as good as the extent to which officials are allowed to depart from them when circumstances warrant and are willing to do so. If the policy book is the final word on every subject, no superintendent is required to apply them; it will suffice to have a clerk read them.

The morning following the School Board’s inaction, Lebanon teachers began discussing how they could pay the tuition themselves. Eventually a majority voted via email to use money from the union treasury for that purpose. Apparently intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the union’s executive board overruled the rank-and-file, perhaps failing to grasp that the teachers not only had an opportunity to do the right thing but also to score a public relations coup. But, union president Andrew Gamble told Corriveau, that action would have been unprecedented and the bylaws would have to be consulted and so on and so forth.

Finally, at the 11th hour, an anonymous donor stepped forward to pay the tuition and allow young Lucian to return to the Hanover Street School after the vacation week ends. This is an outcome after Dickens’ own heart. Despite his acute sensitivity to injustice and the suffering of children, the novelist was no radical. He generally thought that most of the world’s problems did not require that the system be changed, but only that people listen to their better nature.