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Vermont’s independent schools: ‘We could close under new rules’

By   /   February 28, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

INDEPENDENT?: Susan Vigne (pictured with a student) and Molly Reed founded the independent Aurora School in Middlebury in the 1990s. New rules by the State Board of Education would severely hinder independent schools and limit the overall choices for Vermonters.

As the Vermont Board of Education looks to impose new rules on independent schools, leaders of those schools say that one-size-fits-all policies could severely hinder their ability to operate.

“The rule changes that the State Board of Education is proposing have the potential of forcing us to close,” said Susan Vigne, co-founder and president of the Aurora School in Middlebury.

Vigne explained that Aurora is a K-8 school with enrollment fluctuating between 20 to 30 students and about five full-time staff. She said any new mandates — such as requiring teachers to get special certifications and providing custom services for special needs students  —  would have severe consequences.

One of the board’s proposals would require every state-approved independent school that accepts tuitioning students to provide services covering 13 special-needs categories.

“The cost of that is so prohibitive to a small school,” she said.

Vigne explained that rather than closing, to comply they would surrender their state-approved status for accepting tuitioning students from school choice towns. While Aurora doesn’t have tuitioning students this year, other independent schools face the same dilemma.

Another proposed rule change would require teachers to get a special teaching license. One of Aurora’s teachers doesn’t have the license despite having taught for 15 years, and Vigne says additional training would just be redundant and costly. Even teachers with Ph.D.s would be required to get additional training to obtain a license.

Rick Gordon, director of the Compass School in Westminster, echoed Vigne’s concerns about qualifications and special needs services, although he said it helps that the extra certification requirement would apply only to special education teachers.

Nonetheless, he said the license requirement would create hassles.

“I don’t know anywhere else in Vermont that we require any organization to be validated by a private organization outside of our state,” he said, referring to the fact that accreditation would be with the out-of-state New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Of the 13 types of special education services independents would need to provide, Gordon said Compass School can provide only three. He added that mixing different types of special needs kids in the same environment may not be a great idea.

“We don’t have the capacity to put them together in the same place, and then someone suffers a lot. That’s a real danger with these rules,” he said.

Gordon and Vigne both were critical of the structure of the Board of Education, which is an appointed body subject to ideological biases. Such criticisms have been so widespread that state Sen. Philip Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, chair of the Senate Committee on Education, has proposed restructuring the board.

Baruth told Watchdog that the changes being discussed include having at least one board member from an independent school. In addition, board members would serve four-year terms instead of six. He also said the committee is considering striking the proposed rule changes in favor of conducting a study on relevant issues.

Board member Peter Peltz said that the objective behind the rules is not to require all independent schools to be staffed for 13 different special education conditions, but instead have them meet the accommodations for Individualized Education Programs. He added that the proposed rules are not designed to inhibit independent schools’ ability to function.

“This is still very much a work in progress,” he said. “It’s not by any means been resolved, we are still talking about it with the independent schools. There’s no absolute, no firm position here.”

Michael Bielawski is a freelance reporter for Vermont Watchdog. Contact him at [email protected]

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Michael Bielawski is a freelance reporter for Vermont Watchdog. A Seton Hall 2005 graduate, Bielawski has been writing articles for various publications in and around New York City; Seoul, South Korea; and Vermont. He’s a writer for the Hardwick Gazette, keeping track of rising school budgets and rural Vermont issues. He likes to write about energy and the environment, looking for angles not seen in mainstream media. At home, he’s busy looking after two little boys. During free time, he loves to watch Stanley Kubrick films on Netflix.