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Luskin: School Governance

At our annual school district meeting this year, we voted to reduce the size of our school board from five members to three. Even so, we have only one elected school director, and we have to hold a special election to elect at least one more, so that we have a quorum and can conduct business.

The last board tried recruiting candidates but no one stepped forward, which is both understandable and too bad.

For the past eight years, the Newfane School Board has accomplished a great deal, most notably forging a Joint School District with Brookline and creating budgets that both sustain excellence and pass.

Most notable of all, however, is how thoroughly and patiently board members explain the incredibly complex funding formulas mandated by the state. Every time I attend a school meeting, I’m in awe of the highly specialized knowledge these volunteer board members have amassed on our behalf. And I’m grateful.

I’m one of those people who believe that educating our collective children is perhaps our most important civic task. It’s cost-effective: educated children have a better chance of becoming employed, tax-paying adults. It ensures democracy: literacy, critical thinking, and historical perspective make for informed citizens.

But I understand anyone’s reluctance to serve: As complex and difficult as it is to come up with a budget that supports the highest level of student learning at the fairest cost to the taxpayer, it’s only one of five factors that determines the bottom line, and the only one over which there is any local control.

The other four factors that affect our education tax rate include the Common Level of Appraisal (that’s the adjustment made to local property values at the state level); the Base Education Spending Index (set by the legislature); the State Education Tax Rate (also set by the legislature); and Student Enrollment (decreasing statewide). All four of these factors are beyond the school board’s control, so it’s hardly any wonder that few people are willing to spend endless hours at meetings to work so hard under such daunting constraints. Face it, most people inclined to serve on a school board are interested in education, not convoluted finance.

Vermont has a school board member for every 57 students, the lowest ratio in the nation. And with Vermont’s low, statewide population, I’d be surprised if my town is the only one facing school board vacancies, so I have to question a system that requires so much human capital to determine such a small part of an overall equation. There’s got to be a better way.

Vermont lawmakers are currently considering ways of restructuring school governance through consolidation of school districts. This would have the combined effect of reducing both the cost of administration and the amount of human capital required to administer the money to run our schools. Perhaps, if we had a more rational means of governing our schools, more people would volunteer to serve.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator.
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