ASD sees a change in board leadership

ARLINGTON - The chairman of the Arlington School District board resigned Wednesday after being denied a request for a waiver that would have allowed him to continue coaching varsity soccer while concurrently serving on the board.

Todd Wilkins, a school board member since 2008, has coached for a decade and received the waiver in each of the previous years it had been required.

What prompted Vermont Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca to deny the request this year?

"That's a good question," Wilkins said, queried after Wednesday's meeting.

Speaking to Vilaseca in person when the education secretary came to Arlington for a meeting in June, Wilkins said he was told to submit the waiver and that Vilaseca had "never denied" a request.

But through the course of that evening, and previous public meetings, Wilkins and Vilaseca stood on opposite ends of the debate that had brought the state official to Arlington in the first place: The possible consolidation of the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union into one of two neighboring supervisory unions.

When asked, Wilkins was vocal in his opposition of incorporating the Arlington and Sandgate school districts into a larger supervisory union, thereby eliminating the BVSU. (The ultimate decision lies with the State Board of Education, which will pick up the topic at its meeting next Tuesday.)

Vilaseca, meanwhile, has been a continued proponent of mergers. "This is not a secret: I believe we have too many school districts in the state," he told Arlington residents June 21.

Potential conflict of interest

Vermont law prohibits the employment of a school board member by the supervisory union or any school district within the union during that board member's term in office, although the secretary of education may waive that prohibition for employment of a board member as a substitute teacher, coach, or supervisor of extracurricular activities in some instances.

According to statute, that waiver applies for a period "not to exceed one year, which may be renewed, in circumstances in which the school district or supervisory union is unable to hire another qualified person through no fault of its own."

Jesse Moorman, legal counsel for the Vermont Agency of Education, said the request was denied after local school officials failed to demonstrate an attempt to fill the position with another, non-board candidate.

"The request was, technically, incomplete," Moorman said by telephone Thursday. He said the state typically received between six and 12 such waiver requests each year.

Asked about the role the BVSU consolidation discussion could have played in the decision, "I had no understanding of any of that," the AOE attorney said. "I don't have any comment on any of that."

"This waiver is viewed through the lens of 558," the statute determining eligibility for school board candidates and their employment, Moorman continued.

The position in Arlington was never advertised, given Wilkins' nine years as varsity soccer coach.

Wilkins said he was told last month the state was beginning better enforcement of the statute.

A June 21, 2012, letter granting last year's waiver states a renewal beyond that time would "need extremely compelling evidence" of the district's inability to fill the position.

Stephen Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, said his organization heard of such issues from time to time, but was not aware of a rash recently.

"The expectation is it's not going to be a regular thing," Dale said, when a waiver is granted.

Reading his resignation letter Wednesday, Wilkins said it came with deep regret. "I'm disappointed to leave, however I enjoy coaching our kids too much to give that up," he said.

Fellow board member George Carpenter said he wished the board wouldn't accept the resignation, but "I know that's not an option. ... I certainly don't want to deprive those boys of that opportunity."

"You are by far one of the stronger school board members (I've worked with)," Carpenter continued, after which Wilcox received standing applause from the audience in the room.

By telephone Thursday, Carpenter said the state's requirement of "qualified" didn't necessarily mean the best candidate.

"My sense was, if we did advertise, I can't imagine we'd find someone better qualified" to coach, he said. "We don't want to hire just anyone who is qualified."

"(Wilkins') passion is coaching," Carpenter continued.

Board member Diane Jennings was elected as the new board chairwoman.

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