Beginnings of a stealth school-privatization campaign?

Hmmm. Up in the little town of Westford (east of Milton, north of the Essexes, population 2086), a curious event has taken place. Right around the deadline for making the Town Meeting agenda, a petition was submitted that calls for the closing of the Westford Elementary School, and the creation of an independent school in its place.

The petition cleared muster, so it’ll be up for a vote at Westford’s Town Meeting on March 3.

As reported by VPR, the petition came as a surprise to the school board:

The board said the petition raises many questions, and school directors will do their best to research the answers. Some of the yet-to-be-answered questions identified by the board are:

— Should we vote to close our school without knowing any of the details about what might replace it?

… — How can we compare the present quality of the school to what might replace it?

— Should the town give up its public school and lose its voice in how the school is run and how much it costs?

… The motivation behind the petition appears to be a desire to divorce the school from the state education funding formula.

According to the town website, a petition must be signed by at least 5% of registered voters. Which, in Westford, means a grand total of 72 valid signatures. So it’s kind of a low bar to surmount, but it does require some coordinated effort.

Now, I have no idea what happened here. It could very well be that a group of dedicated residents is fed up with rising property taxes and wants to force the issue. But I smell something else.  

Could this be the start of an organized campaign by state conservatives to spread the gospel of privatization town by town — targeting small towns where a small number of local activists could carry the day at Town Meeting? Again, I have no evidence that such a thing is happening, but it’s certainly not a stretch. Privatization activists have been stymied by Shumlin Administration opposition at the state level; they have a model to imitate in North Bennington’s move to an independent school; and it wouldn’t be the first time that conservative groups targeted small communities and low-profile elections to advance their agenda.

As far as I know, it’s only one town this year. (Question for VPR: is this happening in other towns?) But if it succeeds in Westford, could we see a wave of similar petitions next year? Perhaps targeting small communities that lean conservative anyway? There’s a lot of those.

It’s just a ping on the radar for now. But it might turn out to be something much bigger on the horizon.  

3 thoughts on “Beginnings of a stealth school-privatization campaign?

  1. According to the website of Vermonters for a Better Education, in 1998 Winhall was the first Vermont town to call for the closure of its public school, to be reopened as a private school.

    Should you decide to investigate for yourself, you may want to take most of what’s on the website with a grain of salt.

    VBE’s board consists of Lenore Broughton of Burlington (chair), Jeffrey Pascoe of South Burlington  (secretary), Mary Barrosse Schwartz of East Dorset,  Chris Robbins of Danville, Richard Hilton of Lyndon Center, William Corrow of Williamstown, Virginia Duffy of Rutland City, and Wendy Wilton of Rutland City. Libby Sternberg is the Executive Secretary.

    VBE characterizes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, yet take a look at the noted ultra-conservative, reactionary names on that list. IIRC, Barosse Schwartz and Sternberg have been long-time home-schooling proponents. Broughton, of course, falls in the Koch brothers’ camp, along with failed State Treasurer candidate Wendy Wilton. I don’t recognize any of the listed names as belonging to Democrats or Progressives.

    One other thing to attend to is that Westford is in Chittenden County. If it can happen there …


    We now know that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob. ~ FDR

  2. Having been involved in my local school, and how a famous ‘school choice’ person in our town became head of the elementary school board with the mandate to cut property taxes, only to find that there really wasn’t anything in the budget that could be cut at all (other than the lease/maintenance contract for the photocopier), I don’t see that there will be any savings by privatizing their school.  But that’s not really the point with Ultra-Conservatives.

    So just what can be cut, what are the big ticket items in a school budget?

    The single biggest benefit of ‘privatization’ is eliminating education for Special Needs students.  This is a huge issue for small schools, since each special needs students adds one or two staff to the payroll, and is the usual reason that small schools have fluctuating budgets (as special needs students come and go from year to year) and that drives up the ‘price-per-student’ amount.  So by kicking out the Special Needs students, private schools can save a lot of money.  What happens to the special needs kids is obviously not a concern for the Conservatives that hate education anyway. I believe, but I’m not sure about this point, that the town still has to pay no matter where that kid goes, so there’s really no savings there anyway.

    Another benefit is ‘re-negotiating’ the teacher’s contract. Conservatives hate the middle class, and so attacking teachers is now an easy target.  They exclaim, “Some teachers make $50,000 a year!!!” as if that was a huge amount of money.  Since poverty level is $20 – 36K, $50K is not all that much, really – especially after 20 years of dedicated service and earning those pay raises.  But the Conservatives that demand ‘school choice’ don’t care about the lives of school teachers, all they care about is that they have to give money to educate children, and Conservatives hate that with a white-hot passion.  That newly starting teachers make $20K is already too much, according to those same Conservatives.

    The other big ticket item on our small school’s budget was the contract for school busing.  The parents need – require – public school busses.  And so, in my town, the budget was not cut there, but it was a huge point of discussion at town meeting that year.  I wonder if the Westford Conservatives are also eager to screw the parents of the district by eliminating busses?

    In short, our town did a lot of searching on ways to cut our budget, or to Consolidate our school with a nearby town, and we found NOTHING (other than the photocopier, of course).  No mater what, the building needs to be heated and maintained, teachers need to be paid, busses need to run, and special needs kids need to have their federal mandate met.  The state’s artificial ‘spending=per-student’ cap doesn’t take any of that into consideration, and a tiny town of 800 residents can suddenly become a Gold Town, sending money to The State because one Special Needs kid put them over the artificially low cap set in Montpelier.  There was nothing to cut, consolidation saved us NO money and only served to reduce the townspeople’s representation on the school board.

    Clearly the sole purpose of the move in Westford is to reduce education of the town’s children while screwing over the teachers.

  3. There have been a lot of comments on Front porch forum from a handful of townspeople making a lot of noise.  One of the folks that posted on the subject was  “Vermont’s Most Overpaid Economist”, and there have also been posts pointing to the Ethan Allen Institute.  

    If our school gets privatized, it’s on the legislature’s hands for failing to fix a broken system until it was too late.  I can’t blame folks in town for being angry at a 10% hike in school taxes from a 2% school budget increase.  

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