Something odd and troubling has been happening in southern Rutland County for more than a year now. Bits and pieces of it have been reported in the Rutland Herald, but nobody has put together the big picture.
It’s something you wouldn’t expect in the Vermont of our imaginations, the tolerant place where politics is characterized by civility, and the Religious Right is a toothless fringe. But for almost a year, the Mill River school board has endured harassment from a small group of far-right Christians. (The district includes the towns of Clarendon, Shrewsbury, Tinmouth and Wallingford.) They were originally upset over the proposed flying of the Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ Pride flags at the district’s high school, but their list of grievances has grown by leaps and bounds. They’re upset over alleged illegality by the school board, its supposed “very left ideology” which seeks to “politicize and sexualize our children’s education,” a critical Front Porch Forum post by school board chair Adrienne Raymond, and the district’s failure to provide in-school education during the pandemic.
I’m probably missing some stuff, but you get the idea. It’s a great big bag o’nuts.
The group includes Rep. Art Peterson, notorious for denying the existence of systemic racism and saying that victims of discrimination should shake it off and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Peterson was inspired to run for the House after the school board approved the flying of the two subversive flags.
This spring, the group ran candidates for five school board seats. They didn’t run as a slate, but their issues and concerns were pretty much identical.
If they’d swept the field, they would have been one vote shy of a majority on the 11-member board. In the end, they only won two. The group’s candidates in the March elections were Todd Fillmore (pictured above in an out-of-focus yet somehow telling Zoom screenshot), Bruce Moreton, Julie Petrossi, Matthew Gouchberg, and Arne Majorell, who happens to be Peterson’s son-in-law. Moreton and Gouchberg are now on the school board; Majorell lost his race by six votes.
These people and a few allies are frequent participants in the public-comment section of school board meetings. They’re also active posters on Front Porch Forum. And while they try to couch their concerns in the language of earnest disappointment, they can’t entirely stop the crazy from showing through.
After the jump: Let’s look at the crazy!
One of the first “accomplishments” of this little cabal was to drive a family out of town. The family included Tabitha Moore, then head of the Rutland area NAACP. Her daughter Reese Eldert-Moore had asked the school board to fly the BLM flag. The board agreed in June 2020, and added the Pride flag.
This aroused the ire of Peterson et al. They gathered more than 500 signatures on a petition asking that the flag decision be put to a district-wide vote. The board declined, after its lawyer said that by state law, the board decides policy, not the voters.
(At that board meeting, according to the Rutland Herald, 29 people spoke on the issue during public comment time. 25 were in favor of the flags. And after the anti-flag petition was submitted, a group of staff and alumni collected more than 450 signatures in support of the move.)
Eldert-Moore’s family moved out of the district after mother and daughter were hit by a barrage of online hate speech and a homemade BLM sign was vandalized. And arguably because of the controversy, Peterson defeated veteran Democrat Dave Potter in November. He became one of the most outspoken conservatives in the minority caucus, if you like that sort of thing.
Last September, Fillmore made a public records request for documentation of a presentation to faculty and staff by Outright Vermont, which he clearly sees as a sexually subversive organization out to, I don’t know, turn the kids gay? He wanted a “verbatim transcript” of the presentation, which didn’t exist, and a detailed explanation of how it might impact teaching and teacher/student/parent interactions.
The following month, Fillmore launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $10,000 in support of “SchoolHawk,” an effort to expose, in his words, public education’s efforts at “political indoctrination” of children. He’s gotten 19 donations totaling $2,800. (He touts “SchoolHawk.org,” a website that appears not to exist. Dunno what he spent the money on.)
The group attracted the notice of the Liberty Counsel, a far-right law firm that scours the countryside looking for conservative causes celebres (and been listed as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center). Last November, LC wrote a letter to the school board threatening legal action over the district’s flag policy. The district replied with a firm denial of LC’s charges.
Fillmore and others are frequent commenters at school board meetings. Last July, Peterson said Black Lives Matter is “an organization with Marxist roots,” and compared the BLM flag to a Nazi flag. He also slammed the flag flying as an attempt to “politicize and sexualize our children’s education,” which is a hell of a lot to hang on a coupla flags. And he denied that there was racism in the Mill River communities.
At the same meeting, Fillmore called the LGBTQ flag “open indoctrination of schoolchildren toward sexual anarchy.” He cited a letter to the district, which I haven’t seen, “which discusses some uncomfortable facts about the problematic nature of bisexual relationships in particular.” (Ahem, there’s no such thing as a “bisexual relationship.”) Also, he made a rather obscure reference to “three men who sired 13 children with multiple partners,” and said those children “are living collateral damage of a failed cultural experiment in self-gratification and hedonism.”
But wait, there’s more! Fillmore ranted about the board “silencing voices of dissent” as he freely spoke at a public meeting. And he characterized the board as relying on “impulsive emotions” in voting to fly the offending flags. Nice.
Last month, Fillmore threatened a lawsuit against board chair Adrienne Raymond over a March 3 Front Porch Forum post in which she accused the group of taking “the low road to smear good people” and basically trying to hijack the district. Arne Majorell, who lost his race by six votes, implied that her post killed his candidacy. Which is a hell of a lot to hang on a single FPF post.
“You people think this is all about politics,” said Majorell at the March 17 board meeting. “It’s about pushing your very left ideology into the school and onto the kids, which in my opinion is very inappropriate, and I just wish we would get back to fundamental good education in the schools.
Now, I don’t know for sure, but I’d hazard a guess that his definition of “fundamental good education” wouldn’t include The 1619 Project or anything else that might sully America’s reputation as that shining city on a hall. I suspect that he longs for the Good Old Days of embracing American exceptionalism and sweeping inconvenient information under the rug. Mandatory home economics for the girls, perhaps?
There it is. A whole lot of damage has been and is being done by a handful of very determined people. It doesn’t take very many to completely alter public discourse, and make it a nearly unbearable chore to serve in local government. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be on a board that now includes two of the people who’ve been trashing the board for almost a year.
Peterson, Fillmore et al accuse the school board of dividing the community. But they’re the ones spreading hate and suspicion. They’re the ones infecting the district with their conspiratorial fantasies. They’re the ones threatening lawsuits over alleged illegal actions by the board.
They like to portray themselves as champions of free speech, and accuse the board of silencing dissent. They’re also the ones who’ve been making life as difficult as they can for anyone who disagrees with them.
This is the kind of thing that supposedly happens elsewhere. The Bible Belt, or the benighted provinces of Flyover Country. But it can happen, and it is happening, right here in Vermont.