Olsen: Responding to claims in Keelan column

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A commentary by Don Keelan was recently published in your newspaper that contained numerous falsehoods regarding the activities and decisions made related to the integration of the Arlington School District into the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union (SVSU). There isn't space to address all of Mr. Keelan's inaccuracies in detail, so I will focus on only a few of the more substantive matters.

I must point out that, while I am a member of the Vermont Board of Education and the moderator of the Taconic and Green School District, I am writing as an individual and not as a representative of either of those entities.

Mr. Keelan's entire opinion builds from one baseless claim, that I "had one mission, and one mission only, and that is to see the very successful Arlington School District is dissolved by first closing down its supervisory union." He alleges more specifically and again, falsely, that in November 2018 I asked the State Board of Education "to place on that month's meeting agenda the closing of Arlington via an absorption of the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union by the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union." These sweeping statements are patently false, and irresponsibly lead readers to believe that the integration of the Arlington School District into another supervisory union will lead to the closure of Arlington's school.

I never asked for the closing of Arlington to be placed on the State Board of Education's meeting agenda.

To the contrary, as a State Board member in October 2018, during the final phase of the Act 46 merger process, I successfully moved to keep Arlington an independent school district, a decision that was later affirmed in the Board's final order.

The record clearly demonstrates that my actions and vote preserved the status of Arlington as an independent school district. The impact of my support for this measure is that no change to the status or structure of the Arlington School District can be made without the consent of the voters of Arlington. Period.

Mr. Keelan appears to be conflating the Arlington School District with the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union (BVSU) and implies, disingenuously, that the reassignment of the Arlington district to another supervisory union will somehow result in the elimination of the Arlington School District — and even Arlington's school. Once again, Mr. Keelan has it wrong. All else being equal, the reassignment of a school district from one supervisory union to another will not result in the dissolution of the school district or closure of its school.

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A supervisory union has no legal authority to dissolve its member school districts. And, more importantly, a supervisory union has no authority to close a school, which appears to be the fear that Mr. Keelan is evoking.

In his commentary, Mr. Keelan also fails to disclose that the status of the BVSU has been the subject of protracted discussions since 2010, well before I became a member of the Board.

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Further, the BVSU has experienced significant turnover of key administrative staff during this extended period in limbo. The supervisory union's extremely small size and lack of scale magnifies the negative impact that pervasive turnover has on the institutions and students it supports. As a CPA, Mr. Keelan might consider how this instability has contributed to problems identified in a recent audit of the BVSU's payroll.

A full account of the myriad of studies and delays related to the expansion of BVSU over the past decade is too voluminous to recount in a single issue of this newspaper, let alone this letter. For the sake of brevity, I invite readers to begin in November of 2018, when the Secretary of Education put forward a recommendation that the Arlington and Sandgate school districts be reassigned to the SVSU by July 1, 2020. At that time, the superintendents of the BVSU and the SVSU asked the State Board to extend the deadline for this reassignment by one year.

The minutes of that meeting recount that I was the Board member who moved to grant the extension to July 1, 2021, and gained the Board's unanimous support.

Over a year later, but well before the first case of COVID-19 arrived in Vermont, the State Board became concerned that the BVSU and SVSU may not be fully leveraging the additional year granted by the board to effect a smooth transition.

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In exercising its duty to oversee the state's educational system, the Board considered the status of the Arlington and Sandgate districts at the February meeting and discussed the matter again at its March meeting upon receipt of additional information from the Agency of Education.

After deliberation, the Board voted unanimously to send a letter to the districts requesting a status update and reaffirmed their obligation to work towards the July 1, 2021 reassignment deadline (which had already been extended).

In an attempt to promote a false narrative, Mr Keelan further alludes to some conflict of interest on my part that is short on fact and logic. It stinks of a desperate attempt to personally malign me, while taking attention away from what should be our focus - the stability and sustainability of a high-quality educational system to support Vermont's students. Although I am the moderator of the Taconic & Green School District, my role is limited to keeping the discussion at our annual meeting on course, not directing the movement of students. Even so, I struggle to understand the logic of Mr. Keelan's assertion that the reassignment of the Arlington School District to a supervisory union to the south would result in the movement of Arlington's students to schools in a supervisory union to the north.

But again, all of this is moot, because as an independent school district, Arlington voters alone get to make decisions about the future of their school.

It is unfortunate that citizens have to wade through so much misinformation about the history, status, and future impact of these supervisory union changes. It has evoked unnecessary fear, and perpetuated false conclusions. Instead, we should engage in valuable discussions about how we can build a stronger and more resilient education system that serves the increasingly complex needs of the next generation of Vermont's students.

Oliver Olsen of Londonderry is a member of the Vermont Board of Education.


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