Vermont’s Board of Education ponders its purpose following reforms

  • At center, John Carroll, chair of the Vermont Board of Education, at a meeting in Aug. 2019. (VtDigger - Mike Dougherty) VtDigger — Mike Dougherty

Published: 9/23/2019 9:58:56 PM
Modified: 9/23/2019 9:58:53 PM

MONTPELIER — Back in 2012, the Legislature restructured the state entities that oversee education K-12 in Vermont. Most notably, lawmakers got rid of the state’s Department of Education and replaced it with the Agency of Education.

That move made the state’s top school official — the newly minted secretary of education — a cabinet-level position, serving at the pleasure of the governor. It also meant the State Board of Education, which before enjoyed the power to hire and fire the head of the department, had suddenly lost its most important responsibility.

John Carroll, the State Board’s new chairman, said it’s time the body thought long and hard about what role the board should play in Vermont’s education landscape after that restructuring.

“We are not the board that we used to be — by law. And whether you like or don’t like that, the General Assembly and the governor took away the board’s authority. It is a fact,” Carroll, a former Republican state senator from Norwich, told fellow board members at an annual retreat last week.

Carroll believes the board should finish the job started by the Legislature in 2012 and hand basically all administrative functions over to the agency, so that the board can focus on big picture, long-term planning. The board’s more important administrative responsibilities include some oversight of private schools, as well as the power to adopt rules — regulations that fill in the details when the Legislature passes new laws.

“We are in a unique position to shape the future of education in Vermont. But to do so, we need to kind of get up on the hillside,” he said.

Despite the awkward position the board finds itself in, it has played a pivotal role in many of the key education debates of the last few years. The Legislature required the body to make the final call on mergers under Act 46, the state’s school district consolidation law. And Act 173, a sweeping overhaul to Vermont’s special education system, will be enacted through regulations the board is charged with adopting.

Peter Peltz, a board member and former lawmaker, said the General Assembly’s assignments to the body have come with neither staff nor funding. That means the volunteer board, which, in theory stands apart from the partisan fray, and separate from the secretary, must almost wholly rely on the agency for support. (On select occasions, the board has contracted for outside legal counsel, including when then-Gov. Peter Shumlin blocked the agency from assisting the board in drafting controversial private school rules.)

“The expectation is that we take a more forthright, active position, and yet we don’t have the wherewithal to do it independently,” Peltz said.

Oliver Olsen, another board member and a former state lawmaker, said he agreed the board would do well to shed many administrative functions. But given Vermont’s fiscal climate, he said, the body should keep in mind that any request to the General Assembly for staffing, whatever function it decides to serve, was “pretty much doomed.”

“I can remember arguing about $10,000 one-time appropriations for things,” he said.

This isn’t the first time people have wondered out loud what purpose — if any — the State Board should serve. In a memo written last year, Secretary of Education Dan French floated the idea of consolidating all school districts into one, and abolishing the State Board entirely.

French, who sits on the board as a non-voting member, said he’d applied for the secretary job in large part because he believes structural change is badly needed to address Vermont’s demographic challenges.

“My point in doing that was saying ‘let’s debate about the design elements,’ ” French said. “Let’s have a debate about how we set policy in the state.”

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