As the city gears up for its third vote on the school district’s budget, to take place June 6, social media is playing an increasing role in communication and dialogue on many levels. Members of two active social media groups have been hotly debating the facts, the myths and each other, on the topics of the school budget and the retirement of the Rebel name. Now another voice is officially joining the on-line conversation.
During the South Burlington School Board’s lengthy budget development process, its members have heard repeatedly from the community that further communication about tax impacts, specific line items, and reasoning behind certain proposals is needed. As a result of the community’s desire for additional engagement, the board has put a new layer of communication in place. At the May 17 meeting, the school board decided to add their perspective to the online presence by launching their own Facebook page, dedicated solely to the FY ‘18 proposed budget.
Bridget Burkhardt and Martin LaLonde, who will serve as administrators of the social media site, presented the board with basic information about the new Facebook page which was launched later that evening. Burkhardt outlined the purpose of the page, its participation policy, and the process by which items will be posted and approved. Batches of posts will be provided to the board in advance of posting for their approval, but in light of Vermont’s open meeting law, only Burkhardt and LaLonde will do the posting and responding unless the board receives information from the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA) that indicates otherwise.
The purpose of the board’s Facebook page is to provide the community with budget information and clarity around frequently asked questions, as well as to debunk misinformation that is circulating. The board also has established a participation policy that is akin to the behavior that is expected of the public at board meetings. Since the page is designed to be “a source of information rather than a forum for debate,” behaviors prohibited include communications that have the intent of being intimidating, threatening, harassing, mocking, or belittling, among others. Essentially, civil discourse, which is so often lost in online forums, will be required and enforced.
According to Burkhardt and LaLonde, “Administrators of the page may take any action they feel is necessary to maintain a respectful environment on the page. This may include hiding or deleting comments that are examples of prohibited behavior. Administrators may also block a user of the page without notice if they see repeated instances of prohibited behavior.”
Whether or not the board’s Facebook page will continue beyond the June 6 budget vote has yet to be determined, given the time commitment and monitoring such a page requires. A part time communications coordinator position was proposed in the first budget, but was removed for subsequent re-votes. That individual would have overseen these broadened outreach efforts.
Weighing in on Social Media
The Rebel Alliance (RA) was started as a Facebook group by SBHS alumni Corey Mansfield and 1986 SBHS graduate Kiya Batmanglidj, who currently resides in Washington, DC. This group was established in February 2017 with the purpose of working to overturn the school board’s decision to change the Rebel name. The group subsequently registered with the state as a PAC, and has a locally active membership who organized citizen petitions for ballot initiatives related to keeping the name; the board recently declined to move the petitions forward. According to the RA website, “It has since grown into a group working for accountability and transparency from the school board and the administration in the South Burlington School District and city government. We are especially concerned about sustainability, economic development and direct democratic participation of all community members.” RA member Joe Finnigan states, “We are opposing the budget because nearly 5% increase in spending against flat enrollment is unsustainable.”
Another active Facebook group, SB Community Watch, was started after the Master Planning Task Force concluded in 2015, by South Burlington residents Monica Ostby and Abby Crocker, who co-authored the Task Force’s minority statement. The group’s Facebook page is described as a “public group by South Burlington residents for South Burlington residents, to share information regarding the school board and city council actions in response to the many changes being discussed for our town, and to organize attendance for important meetings.” The group is administered by resident Emilee Hoffman and Ostby. According to Ostby, the page “is intended as a neighborhood forum for SB residents and taxpayers to share differing opinions without the influence of voices beyond our town.”
Vote Yes 2017 PAC
Recently, a “VOTE YES” group has officially organized in support of passing the school district’s budget. The South Burlington community members involved state they are “committed to strong schools” and announced the kick off of a “Vote Yes in Support of our Schools Campaign,” May 18. The group registered as a PAC May 12, and has launched a website, yes4sb.com. The goal of the group, according to a press release, is to share information about the school budget, its value to students, families, and the local economy, as well as inducing a larger voter turnout.
In the statement, Patrick Leduc, former school board chair, is quoted, saying, “Passing the proposed budget June 6 is essential for maintaining the quality of education South Burlington values and is known for...we are very fortunate to be presented with a budget that reduces our tax rate by 1.2 percent and maintains strong programming.”
“South Burlington is ready to move forward in support of the heart and pride of our community, our amazing schools and our strong commitment to education,” said Abby Croker, another member of the group.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent