The Mill River Unified Union School District Board at its meeting Tuesday told the public that board members will not support a public vote on whether to raise Black Lives Matter flags and LGBT flags on school campuses.
The board’s chair, Tammy Heffernan, explained the group’s decision.
“We’ve reviewed the petition with the district’s attorney in light of the law and we have been advised that … the request for a vote by the voters by Australian ballot on the issue of flag-raising is not within their statutory powers,” she said, after hearing more than 35 public comments.
Heffernan said the board received emails concerning the constitutionality of the decision to raise activist flags on public grounds. She said legal counsel advised them to refer to the 2018 Skiff, Jr. v. South Burlington case, which related to renaming South Burlington’s school sports teams from the “Rebels” to something else.
“Our Supreme Court basically had held that the electorate does not have a right to vote on any petition that constructs or advises the school board to do anything,” Heffernan said.
She added that because of the COVID-19 virus, which currently has three Vermonters hospitalized, there will be no special in-person school board meetings “for the seeable future” on any topic including meetings on the flags.
“We want to keep our community members safe and that’s the way we’re going to operate,” she said.
Watch the July 22 board meeting
The supervisory union board initially approved flying the controversial flags during a June 17 meeting. A petition against the move followed weeks later, organized by local resident Art Peterson, a candidate for state representative in the Rutland-2 district.
During the comment period, Peterson was one of a handful of community members to speak against the flags.
“Those [petition] signatures are taxpayers in the Mill River community, and they are very, very concerned about the two flags that [you] want to be raised,” he said. “ … The flags are a symbol — the Black Lives Matter flag is a symbol of an organization with Marxist roots. It’s a symbol of an organization that continually is involved with violence, and if we put that flag on that flag pole, we’re telling the world that we agree with them.”
Board member John McKenna said he hopes the decision is final.
“I hope that we can put this to bed and move on and get those flags raised,” he said.
Board member Len Doucette originally voted to raise the flags, but in hindsight, he said, he wishes board members had put more thought into it.
“I get concerned that we have opened a Pandora’s box, and while I do not oppose raising those flags, I think we could have spent more time planning before we voted to raise them,” he said.
In all, about 30 speakers spoke in favor of the flags. Some of them were alumni who shared allegations about racism and homophobia in the schools.
Andrew Moshovetis, of Williston, has no experience at the schools, but he spoke during the meeting and took a verbal jab at Peterson.
“You do have to hear both sides. You’ve gotta listen to the people from BLM, [and] you’ve got to listen to Art and the ignorant things he’s saying,” he said.
Board member Doug Earle expressed frustration at the inclusion of speakers from outside the districts.
“The last individual … he wasn’t the only one [from outside the district],” Earle said. “This is a local issue done for our school district and the towns that we have.”
Later in the meeting, Earle said he received threats for voting against the flags. “I am going to make sure I keep myself close to protection,” he said.
Earle said his decision against raising the flags was not about race, and he noted that he and his wife have adopted five African-American children. He said he doesn’t support the flags because of the organizations and financial backers behind them.
“It’s got a large part of their money coming into them through a gentleman by the name of George Soros,” he said.
A billionaire investor, Soros is known for making massive investments in progressive-leaning media and activist groups including BLM. In a recent interview with the New York Times, the Open Society Foundation, which is headed up by Soros, announced that it would be donating $220 million to “black-led justice organizations.”
Earle suggested Soros gives money to groups to mount opposition to President Donald Trump.