Ken Fredette: No guardrails for school boards that take the high road

This commentary is by Ken Fredette, a resident of Wallingford.

Our public schools are under attack. This really is nothing new: Many years ago, I learned about the American Legislative Exchange Council — a lofty-sounding name, but in reality an organization that has its claws into legislatures all over the country, including ours here in Vermont, to promote hard conservative agendas through introducing model legislation from its national playbook.

Privatizing education is one of its banner issues — funneling tax dollars away from our public schools to charter schools, tuition vouchers, and religious schools while banging the drum of giving parents choice about their children’s education.

That’s a great sound bite, to be sure — and parents certainly can determine that private schools are the best fit for their children — but that cannot come at the expense of undermining our public schools, which are the best bang for the buck for most families . All too often, “choices” are available only to those of means.

But there is a new tactic from this concerted effort: Campaigns to actually take over school boards.

We have seen this locally on the Rutland City and Mill River school boards, and it is happening all over Vermont and the country. Chosen candidates and supporting members of the public cry out to keep politics out of our schools, while at the same time promoting far-right agendas such as the teachings of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (another nice-sounding name). It seems the truth is they want to keep politics out of schools unless it’s their politics.

In recent years, lack of propiety during public input at meetings has been a challenge faced by board members whose paramount reason for serving is doing what’s best for kids. These duly elected officials have faced attack after attack at open meetings, as well as on social media. It is of no consequence to the accusers if they are in violation of laws, or if they fill their testimonies with falsehoods, but responsible board members are often bound by issues of confidentiality and hence are unable to refute even the most ridiculous assertions.

And there’s the rub: We have many laws in Vermont statutes that are quite clear about ethical behavior by elected officials, and also by members of the public in meetings, but it’s tough to find who is responsible for enforcement.

Citizens can bring up issues from years ago, or ask the same question over and over when they don’t like the answer, not respect time limits, mount personal attacks, and continually disrupt boards from conducting business on behalf of our students.

One can find a lot of sympathy and understanding at the offices of the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, or the State’s Attorney, but not much in the way of action. If people want to tilt at windmills — Critical Race Theory immediately comes to mind, but rest assured there is another nonissue waiting in the wings, and another, and another; it just doesn’t seem to matter that it’s all nonsense.

A state representative came to Mill River meeting after meeting, forcibly promoting an agenda — actually going as far as demanding that the board issue a decree to staff that certain things cannot be taught in the classroom, complete with a list of forbidden words.

The appropriate role for a representative would be asking about what issues our Legislature could deal with to help boards do their jobs better, not trying to impose personal ideologies upon them.

And on ethics — the former Mill River chair and the one before her were barraged by accusations of violations of open meeting laws. When one particularly vocal resident was asked for a concrete example, he replied, “Do the work yourself.”

That’s because there were no examples.

Now we have a Mill River board member who was elected from Wallingford in March of 2021, but moved to Rutland seven months later and has been there ever since. When a group of citizens requested that the Board of Civil Authority look into his residency, that board voted 10-1 to issue a challenge letter.

The school board member responded promptly that, while he had to change his street address, he is still a resident of Wallingford, but in the same document stated he has been living in Rutland since last October. Statutes do allow somebody to remain on a checklist for voting purposes under certain circumstances, but serving as an elected official is quite a different matter. This board member should have stepped down last October.

When I brought this up at the most recent Mill River board meeting, he responded that he is “a resident of Wallingford, according to the Secretary of State.” A quite shameless distortion of what the opinion given by the Secretary of State’s office actually was — a broad-brushed statement pertaining to voting rights.

Throughout Vermont, school board members who are in it for the kids, and like-minded citizens, have stayed on the high road while suffering all of this, repeatedly countering some truly absurd claims by presenting factual information civilly.

But the high road lacks guardrails — all need to be careful not to slide off and into the mud. It’s already crowded down there.

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Tags: ALEC, Ken Fredette, Mill River, privatizing education, Rutland City, school boards under attack

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