By Guy Page
The Vermont Sunset Advisory Commission is considering recommending the elimination of the controversial Vermont State Board of Education (SBE), Co-chair Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said Wednesday.
“We’re toying with it,” Sen. White answered when Headliners asked if the commission will recommend the SBE be changed or eliminated, following about two hours of discussion and testimony at the Vermont State House today. The Sunset Advisory Commission is charged evaluating which of 347 appointed state boards should continue — and which shouldn’t. Other members are Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, Co-chair Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, Rep. Robert LaClair, R-Barre Town, gubernatorial representative Susan Zeller, and former legislator Matt Krauss of Stowe.
Most state boards are little-known. The Passenger Tramway Board, for example, excites little interest or legislative/media attention.
On the other end of the “interest” spectrum, there is the State Board of Education.
The SBE “has 10 members, eight adult members and two students,” according to Aug. 21 Vermont Agency of Education (AOE) testimony to the Sunset Commission. “The adult members serve for six-year terms and are appointed by the Governor. The students are appointed by the Governor as rising Grade 11 students (juniors) and serve one year as a non-voting member and one year as a voting member.” All members receive a $50 per diem and the annual budget is $93,000, not including AOE staff time. Per state law “the board approves education quality standards, content standards, reviews and approves independent schools, and engages in rulemaking,” AOE said.
The SBE has taken on an active role in the forced mergers of school districts under Act 46. It is the subject of an anti-forced merger lawsuit now in the Vermont Supreme Court. The lawsuit asserts that the SBE has exceeded its lawful mandate.
In the justification of its existence, the SBE isn’t getting much support from AOE. Today an AOE spokesperson told the Commission in effect that AOE could manage SBE’s workload.
On Aug. 21, the Sunset Commission asked AOE several questions to assess how well SBE was performing and fulfilling its legislatively-appointed role. To many questions, AOE ‘took the Fifth’: “The AOE is not able to assess the performance of the SBE. The agency respectfully suggests that the commission contact the Acting Chair of the board, Mr. John Carroll.”
Today, however, AOE spokesperson Ted French offered a more detailed answer when asked whether AOE could handle SBE duties:
“In all cases mentioned in testimony, the AOE has the expertise, capacity and ability to fulfill these roles without SBE involvement. Indeed, we continually provide support to the SBE in executing the duties under the current system. In many cases the SBE does not have the technical expertise to prepare responses. As appropriations to staff the SBE were never made, the board relies on legal, technical and administrative support from the AOE to execute these duties. Furthermore, many references to the SBE still exist in statute where the entity executing specified responsibility has either always been the AOE or where AOE is the only entity capable of performing the task.”
What the redundancy-eliminating Sunset Commission makes of that blunt assessment remains to be seen. The panel will take further testimony before it makes any recommendation, Gannon said today. Furthermore, the advisory commission’s recommendations will go nowhere unless approved by the Legislature, which could amend, reject, ignore or approve as it sees fit.
The Sunset Commission has been meeting monthly. There is no November meeting listed on its website.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.