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Martin: Consolidation Conundrum

There is a democratic institution that now only exists in the U.S. and Canada. It is an elected body that typically convenes once or twice a month and fulfills legislative, judicial, and executive functions. Its members receive little or no remuneration, but take calls around dinner time from concerned constituents. Its members also answer policy questions in the produce aisle, receive taxpayer tirades on street corners, and reassure worried parents in the bleachers at baseball games. Of all the elected officials that exist, these are the most accessible. You’ve probably already guessed the democratic institution I’m describing: the local school board. In Vermont at least, it’s easy to argue that in our form of government, the local school board is the elected body that is closest to the people it represents.

Still, some wonder if we Vermonters haven’t taken our attachment to local control a little too far. After all, with a school board member for about every 60 Vermont students, a confusing mix of governance structures, and some school boards that don’t even have schools, many policymakers are once again looking to consolidate. Vermont has already tried this, with little or no success, at least six times since 1919, and most experts agree the last reform that stuck was back in 1892. So as we head into this next season of consolidation discussions, it may be useful to keep a few things from the current context in mind.

First, consolidation is not a magic bullet. Repeated studies have shown that consolidation alone does not significantly reduce school funding costs. However, we may be able to improve efficiency by simplifying some of our governance structures.

Next, whether the decisions are about curriculum, finance, or policy, experts agree that state and federal mandates have greatly reduced local control of schools. We need to be realistic about the amount of local control school boards actually wield at present.

In addition, in some ways, expanded parental choice has reduced local board control. Increasingly, students pursue learning opportunities outside their local district through a combination of public school choice, dual enrollment, online classes, homeschooling, and community-based learning.

Just the same, if we didn’t have local school boards, we’d have to invent them. In states with huge, centralized school districts, there has been a return to “site-based management teams” and “school councils” composed of educators, parents, and community members.

So while few things get Vermonters as worked up as the two words “local control”, it’s probably safe to predict that future school governance reforms will honor our unique style of grass-roots democracy, even as they seek to simplify an overly complex system.

After all, the only thing Vermonters value more than local control is common sense.

Mike Martin is the Director of Learning for South Burlington School District and a Senior Associate with the Rowland Foundation.
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