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February 03, 2014

A Place on Burlington's Ballot Eludes a 'Lost Boy'

LM-peterdeng-MTPeter Garang Deng, a former “Lost Boy” from South Sudan, was poised to become the first refugee to seek elected office in Vermont. But the city clerk last week barred Deng from running for a seat on the Burlington school board because he failed to submit the required number of valid signatures on his candidate petition form.

“It’s very unfair,” Deng said after being notified of his disqualification. “They should be more welcoming of candidates.”

The 27-year-old employment counselor for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program added that his disappointment is such that he’s unlikely to run for office in Vermont in the future. And that’s a potential loss for those who would like to see more racially diverse representation in the nation’s second-whitest state. (Only Maine is more monochromatic).

Burlington’s 16-member school board may be especially in need of a broader racial mix. There are no people of color on the board sets policy for a school district whose students are 30 percent nonwhite.

As a newcomer with lots of ideas but little experience in American electoral politics, Deng lacked the practical knowledge of how to get on the ballot that more experienced candidates possess. The section of the city clerk’s website where petition forms can be downloaded includes this notice: “30 valid signatures need to be submitted; a few extra are strongly encouraged.”

Charlie Giannoni, a longtime local activist, understood that it would be wise to collect those extra signatures and to submit a petition well in advance of this year’s January 27 deadline. Giannoni, 50, met the access requirements and will now be the only candidate for school commissioner listed on the March 4 Town Meeting Day ballot in Ward 3 in the Old North End.

Deng handed in exactly 30 signatures at the deadline. He was notified the next day that 16 were invalid because they did not come from registered voters in Ward 3. “I’d asked everyone who signed whether they lived in the ward, and they told me they did,” Deng said a couple of days later.

The clerk’s office gave him 48 additional hours to file a valid petition. But Deng said his duties at the refugee resettlement office in Colchester prevented him from collecting the additional signatures.

A Deng vs. Giannoni race would likely have drawn more attention than is typically paid to school board elections, which are only occasionally contested.

Giannoni, a field producer for Channel 17 Town Meeting Television, is emphasizing the need to rein in a school budget that he says is taking taxpayers for an increasingly uncomfortable ride. Steep annual budget increases — and corresponding hikes in local property taxes — cannot continue, he says, suggesting that the board must prepare for a much slower pace of funding growth in coming years.

“The school budget keeps going up, and people’s ability to pay taxes keeps going down,” Giannoni observes. “Those trend lines are crossing now.”

This year, the Burlington school system is asking voters to approve a $67 million budget that would result in a nearly 10 percent increase in the education portion of Burlington’s property tax. School spending in the city has climbed 40 percent during the past five years while the overall inflation rate has risen 11 percent during the same period.

Deng would not have disagreed with Giannoni’s contention that the schools need to spend existing resources more effectively. But his focus would have been on ways to achieve greater equity in educational outcomes for Burlington students. In an interview when it appeared he would be a candidate, Deng said he intended to highlight the unmet needs of students of color — and those of white children from low-income families.

“The school system also isn’t working for poor white students,” he said. “But those kids are seen as doing OK because they’re white. They’re not getting the services they deserve.”

The Burlington school district should develop programs and courses to equip students with skills that will enable them to find better-than-menial jobs soon after finishing high school, Deng suggested.

“Burlington has a high rate of high-school graduation, and that’s fine,” he said, “but a number of New Americans and other students are just getting a piece of paper when they graduate. They’re not getting good work.

“Look around the Old North End,” added Deng, who lives on Front Street. “You wouldn’t be seeing that level of poverty if the schools were working for everybody.”

His biography is at least as compelling as his views on school issues.

Deng had been orphaned at age five and lived for much of his childhood in refugee camps in South Sudan, which fought a more-than-20-year war for independence from the rest of Sudan. Deng eventually made his way to a United Nations-run refugee camp in Kenya as one of South Sudan's “Lost Boys” — the term used for adolescent and teenage males who completed perilous treks to safety across the border. He spent nine years at the camp in Kenya, where he taught adult literacy classes.

A graduate of Champlain College, Deng earned an MBA from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, became a U.S. citizen, and wrote an autobiography, Lost Generation: The Story of a Sudanese Orphan. He established a foundation to help educate other orphans in South Sudan and runs a financial services company with clients in three East African countries.

There’s more: Deng’s associates in East Africa recently provided emergency relief for South Sudanese displaced from Bor, his hometown. A vicious civil and tribal war that broke out in December has destroyed Bor and killed seven of Deng’s cousins.

Photo of Peter Garang Deng by Matthew Thorsen

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