OPINION: A Call For Civil Discourse in Education

by Nicole Mace, executive director, Vermont School Boards Association

As leaders in education, it is our obligation to model civil discourse. When faced with conflict or opposing priorities, do we want future generations to approach a situation with humility and a commitment to understanding, or do we want them to draw a line in the sand and vilify those who stand on the other side? We must teach children conflict resolution and consensus building, skills I believe are necessary for the well-being of tomorrow’s society. Recently, I have seen two issues challenge the education community’s ability to engage in civil discourse. The first involves changes to employee health care plans; the second involves revisions to the rules governing independent schools. Both make changes to systems that provide significant benefits to many Vermonters. In each case, the Vermont School Boards Association has been supportive of the changes and has been publicly attacked for that support.

In the spring of 2015, the Vermont Education Health Initiative decided to replace existing school employee health insurance with plans to be competitive with Vermont Health Connect. Therefore, as of Jan. 1, 2018, all school employees will be on new health care plans. Employees are understandably concerned about the impact these changes will have on themselves and their families. New plans cover the same services and networks, but they have higher out-of-pocket costs. Because premiums are lower, there are opportunities to keep costs at current levels while also creating savings for taxpayers. The association spent last year providing information and advice to help school boards negotiate changes to the plans. Since one role of a school board is to determine how best to deploy resources in service of children and in support of the professionals who work with them, our guidance has been focused on helping boards reach settlements that benefit taxpayers and are fair to employees. This past Fall, I reached out to Vermont National Education Association leadership to discuss an approach to negotiating agreements that would benefit both employees and taxpayers. While we had a constructive conversation, the organization has since accused the Vermont School Boards Association of pushing an agenda designed to hurt teachers and their families. In September, the Vermont-NEA reported that the Vermont School Boards Association ’s recommendations were part of an “aggressive, cost-shifting strategy, which will … hurt teachers, support staff and their families.” Their December newsletter included the headline “Vermont School Boards Association Agenda Clearly Has Your Healthcare in Crosshairs,” and accused them of “manufacturing a crisis” where all districts are bargaining at the same time, and of engineering a change to the Vermont Educational Health Initiative board structure in order to advance a bargaining agenda. The transition to new plans will not be successful if employees and communities are pitted against each other. All parties should bargain with an open mind, prepared to understand the options available and the objectives of both sides.

Similarly, the board’s rules governing independent schools have generated controversy and anger in certain areas of the state. In this instance, the board is attempting to address concerns about public dollars going to private institutions that do not serve students with disabilities. The process has been far from perfect. But, when attending two public meetings in communities strongly opposed to the changes, I was taken aback by the hostility shown to speakers with opposing points of view. People who spoke in favor of the rules were booed or told to take their seat.

The board was accused of trying to destroy communities and employing “greasy back door” tactics; the association was declared to be on a mission to destroy school choice and independent schools. Neither assertion is true. Representatives from the independent schools, the board of education and public school representatives have been meeting to determine areas of common ground and opportunities to improve the rules. Outside of those focused meetings, however, the heated rhetoric continues.

The issues facing our communities, state, nation and the world demand dialogue focused on identifying common ground and workable solutions. Our challenges are complex and require a willingness to understand diverse perspectives and create new approaches to solving old problems. I hope all education stakeholders will engage in civil discourse as we chart a course for the future of our schools and communities. Vermont’s children deserve no less.

Note: Edited for length

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