Vt. State Board Member From Norwich Against the Grain Again on Act 46

  • John Carroll, of Norwich, was one of two on the nine-member Vermont State Board of Education who voted against adopting its final Act 46 school redistricting plan. Carroll spoke with Valley News writer Sarah Earle in West Lebanon, N.H., Dec. 6, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • John Carroll, of Norwich, was one of two on the nine-member Vermont State Board of Education who voted against adopting its final Act 46 school redistricting plan. Carroll spoke with Valley News writer Sarah Earle in West Lebanon, N.H., Dec. 6, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/25/2018 11:32:43 PM
Modified: 12/26/2018 3:37:18 PM

Norwich — At 75, John Carroll acknowledges that he’s gone a bit soft. A lifelong Republican in a bastion of Democrats and a veteran public servant who relishes a philosophical skirmish, he’s always possessed the backbone to challenge the status quo and sometimes tell people what they don’t want to hear.

In the case of Act 46, the state law forcing smaller school districts to merge into larger ones, that presumably would involve ignoring pushback from the school districts being forced to consolidate and telling them that it was something that had to be done.

But Carroll, a Norwich resident, was one of two members of the Vermont State Board of Education last month to vote against the final plan to reorganize schools districts under Act 46. His opposition, he said, came down to sympathy for the people who didn’t want to lose their community schools in the forced mergers.

“In many cases, they felt ardently that it was not good for them or their communities ... and here we were sort of thumbing our noses at them,” Carroll said in an interview earlier this month. “We haven’t opened anybody’s eyes. We’ve only said, ‘Well, we have the bigger stick than you.’ ”

Carroll said he has age to thank, mostly, for this perspective. That and the tenderizing effects of grandchildren.

“I believe in resorting to mercy in a way that I’d never even thought about 15 years ago,” said Carroll, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Phil Scott in March 2017. “I would not have been so tuned into this human dimension 15 years ago.”

Carroll grew up in Newbury, Mass., then a farming town, and dreamed not of politics but of pastures.

“I always wanted to be a dairy farmer ... that was my dream life,” he said. “I saw nothing more important to do than be a dairy farmer.”

Instead, he went to Harvard, where professors routinely sat down with students in the dining hall and chatted over the latest edition of The New York Times, igniting his love of ideas and learning.

“It equipped me to engage with ideas and information and to love to do so,” he said. “I consider that a great benefit and a profound influence of the women and men who I learned from.”

After working for a management consulting firm in Washington, D.C., where he helped craft the earned income tax credit for the Nixon administration, Carroll and his wife, Nan, landed in Royalton in the 1970s as part of the back-to-the-land migration of educated, often-affluent city folks to New England farming communities. He farmed, plowed snow and started a construction business, eventually going to work for Hypertherm as its director of global services.

He also sat on various town boards and, after moving to Norwich in 1979, served on the Norwich School Board and chaired the Dresden School Board. He developed an appetite for bigger things when he accompanied a friend, Vermont State Rep. Jack Candon, to a legislative session.

“I went up there, and I thought it was really neat. I thought, ‘Oh, I want to be part of this,’ ” he said.

There was one problem. Carroll was a Republican living in a stridently Democratic town.

“Politically, the message was, ‘This guy’s a Republican. Not a chance that he’s going to get to Montpelier on our vote,’ ” he recalled. “So I thought, ‘What the hell? I’ll run for Senate.’ ”

Carroll ran and won, and went on to serve for six years in the Senate, from 1988 to 1994. Even back then, he could feel his political views losing their sharp edge.

“There’s so much to learn about things that have never come across your landscape, especially about people whose lives are in some disarray,” he said. “My kids, years later, said, ‘You know, being in public life made you a nicer person.’ ”

It did not, however, make him a pushover. Rounding out two years on the Board of Education, Carroll has become known for swimming against the tide.

“I’ve come to understand that part of my role in life is that sometimes it’s a service to take another view,” Carroll said. “My colleagues on the state board have come to embrace that as well about me, and I thank them for that because it can be kind of lonely.”

Krista Huling, chairwoman of the board, said Carroll’s contributions often add contour to the group’s discussions because he takes it upon himself to present an alternative viewpoint even when his own ideas align with the majority.

“I think it helps the board arrive at a stronger decision,” Huling said in a telephone interview.

In the case of Act 46, Carroll said it’s not just his renegade streak that motivates his resistance. He believes the process was flawed, but he also doubts the act will accomplish the critical goal of reducing costs for schools.

“It does achieve some economies. Many districts who have merged have told us very impressive stories of how they’ve made much better use of their staff and have actually been able to reduce some headcounts along the way,” he said. “But I think (Act 46) will turn out be a pretty primitive instrument (for reducing costs). ... You’re not going to fix this problem by buying toilet paper in bulk.”

The only viable way to reduce costs is one that no one wants to talk about, said Carroll, two of whose three daughters are teachers.

“It’s about salaries, and that’s a painful topic,” he said. “The solution only will be to right-size staff. All other things are just nibbling around the edges.”

Huling did not dispute Carroll’s claims, but she said reducing costs is not the main objective of Act 46, at least in her mind. Providing students more opportunities for the same amount of money is the real benefit of the legislation.

Carroll acknowledged that the mergers offer a number of advantages, including a broader range of academic offerings, a more standardized scope and sequence of learning across the age spectrum and the potential for schools to create specialties such as STEM or the arts.

He said the board needs to do a better job in pitching these benefits to skeptical communities rather than ramming the mergers through against their will.

“If one gives a good-faith effort to that kind of conversation, and you still have recalcitrants, then OK, maybe then you pull out the stick,” he said.

But Huling said the board did its best to both communicate its goals and listen to feedback in the tight time frame the Legislature imposed. The board received the Secretary of Education’s recommendations in June and had to adopt final plans by Nov. 30. Adding numerous extra meetings to its schedule, the board gave at least 20 minutes of floor time to every group that had asked for an exemption from the forced mergers, as well as dedicating 90 minutes of each meeting to public hearings.

“I feel like everybody did get a say,” Huling said.

Carroll said he has no idea how Act 46 will play out at this point. Two districts that were ordered to merge by the board, Stowe and Elmore-Morristown, filed a lawsuit on Dec. 13 claiming that the forced merger violates due process under the U.S. Constitution. A second group of plaintiffs, including 32 school boards, five municipal boards and several individuals, also filed a suit on Thursday. The Legislature also could consider adjusting or amending the act.

For the board, however, it’s time to move on. Carroll hopes he and his colleagues now can find time to evaluate their roles and priorities and set an effective agenda that doesn’t get mired in minutiae.

“We’re supposed to be the policy generals. We’re supposed to be up on the horse ... surveying the scene,” Carroll said. “If there’s anybody in the state whose job it is to see the big picture, it ought to be ours.”

One priority for Carroll is to convene a statewide conversation about how Vermont schools can excel while continuing to address the inefficiencies highlighted by Act 46. Another is to nudge post-secondary education into the board’s scope of vision. Too many high school students don’t attend college, he said, and, perhaps more alarmingly, a sizable chunk start but don’t finish.

“That has to be a real concern in the 21st century, when our children in Randolph, Vt., will be competing with children from Singapore, Finland, Latvia,” he said. “We need to see this as one continuum. We need to take ownership of it.”

Carroll wouldn’t go so far as to embrace ideas floated by his onetime rival Bernie Sanders, who beat Carroll in the 1994 race for the U.S. House. But he does believe young people need a strong — and accessible — support system in planning for, applying to and paying for college.

“Money is an obstacle, but with the right help it can be overcome,” he said.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com and at 603-727-3268.

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