Gov. Phil Scott believes the authority to forcibly merge school districts should rest with his administration, not with the State Board of Education.
“From my standpoint, no, I think that we’ve gotten to a point where the state board has too much power,” Scott said, when asked if an unelected board should be able to force a merger, such as the order issued in October and confirmed in November to merge the Elmore-Morristown and Stowe school districts.
“I think it should fall to the administration, to the secretary (of education), but that’s not something that’s going to change overnight,” Scott said.
Act 46 of 2015 calls for districts to merge into larger districts with at least 900 students to provide educational equity and operate more efficiently. The law gives authority to the secretary of education to create a final merger plan; however, the authority to implement — and change — the secretary’s plan rests with the State Board of Education.
“My secretary of education at the time, Rebecca Holcombe, advised that they (Elmore-Morristown and Stowe) not merge,” Scott said. “The state board decided to move in a different direction. That is their charge. They were given that authority.”
Scott said the very concept of boards such as the State Board of Education is outdated.
“Think about the transportation board, and how powerful they were at one time. We have a liquor board, and we still struggle with that, in some respects,” Scott said. “I believe there comes a time when I think the board-type concept is outdated.”
Administration Secretary Susanne Young said appointed boards are a remnant of how government used to work.
“I think they are vestiges of board government,” Young said. “There used to be a board of mental health, a board of health, a board of liquor. I think every government function was overseen by a board. In the ’70s, we moved to an agency form of government, with governor appointees heading up most of them. I think some of these boards are holdovers.”
William Mathis, vice chair of the State Board of Education, said that, regardless of the governor’s opinion, this board was granted this authority by the Legislature.
“Quite simply, it was the Legislature that passed that law that gave us that power, which we didn’t invite,” Mathis said.
According to Mathis, an appointed board is able to perform its work independent of shifting political whim.
“When you have an appointed board, you get things done that someone can’t get done when they’re looking over their shoulder at polling numbers,” Mathis said.
State Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, took some comfort in the governor’s candor.
“I am obviously pleased that the governor does not believe the state board should be able to dissolve school boards and school districts,” Scheuermann said.
However, she disagreed with Scott regarding where exactly that authority should lie.
“I think, in 2015, the Legislature showed a great degree of cowardice by delegating the responsibility and authority to dissolve school boards and school districts to the State Board of Education,” she said.
Scheuermann said she will introduce two bills in the upcoming legislative session. One would invalidate the merger plan approved by the state board; the other would require all mergers to receive the approval of voters within the districts.
Scott said he would not be surprised to see legislation like that.
“I’m not aware of any legislation, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see that,” Scott said. “It’s not just here in Stowe. There is also apprehension in Barre City and Barre Town, and elsewhere.”