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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

School Consolidation Mandate Losing Steam As Opposition Grows

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As school enrollment in Vermont continues to decline, legislation that would consolidate the state's 275 school districts into 60 districts is coming under fire.

The House Committee on Education gave unanimous approval last month to legislation that would shrink the number of school districts in Vermont. But their legislative colleagues have begun to voice concerns with the plan. And what would have been one of the most forceful education mandates in state history now looks to be losing momentum.

To understand just how many school districts Vermont has, a comparison with other states is helpful: even if you cut the number of districts in half, Vermont would still have more school board members per student than any state in the country.

"I think the basic question is, does a state the size of Vermont, with 80,000 students and declining, need to have that level of governance? And if indeed we can make school districts larger, will that in fact give more opportunities for learning opportunities for kids?" - Rep. Joey Donovan, chairwoman, House Education Committee

“I think the basic question is, does a state the size of Vermont, with 80,000 students and declining, need to have that level of governance? And if indeed we can make school districts larger, will that in fact give more opportunities for learning opportunities for kids?” says Rep. Joey Donovan, D-Burlington, the chairwoman of the House Committee on Education.

Donovan has led the push for legislation that would, over the next six years, shrink the number of districts in Vermont from about 275 down to 60. The bill would give districts time to merge of their own volition, and authorize a board to enforce the mandate on districts that failed to comply within the legislated timeframe.

Legislators, particularly Democratic ones, have been relucant to meddle with the local control that has long defined the state’s system of public education. But Donovan and others say that tiny districts are not only depriving children of 21st century curricular advancements, but also results in unnecessarily high education costs.

“I would have to say that as this gets implemented, it seems to me that there would be efficiencies which could equal into tax savings down the road,” Donovan says.

But the passage of the bill has triggered an uproar in smaller districts, where school administrators and many parents fear the mandate will erode local control and lead to the closure of schools. Since the vote in the education committee, the bill has been holed up in the House Committee on Ways and Means. And it’s become apparent that the consolidation mandate isn’t likely to stay intact.

“There’s a great deal of concern that I heard back about this loss of the connection between community and their school, the loss of local control,” says Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, the ranking Democrat on Ways and Means.

Sharpe says there’s no way to anticipate how consolidation will affect local schools, and that many in Montpelier believe further study is needed before the Legislature moves forward with such a massive governance change. He says the consolidation could also have tax rate consequences that the education committee hasn’t fully explored.

“If you combine several communities, you’re going to have communities with higher taxes and communities with lower taxes. Well, how do you level that over time?” Sharpe says.

Donovan says the bill lays out a process by which concerns like the ones raised by Sharpe would be identified and resolved. The Legislature has made repeated attempts to encourage consolidation by offering enticements and financial incentives for districts that voluntarily opt to merge. But those efforts have largely failed to bring about the results lawmakers had sought. And Donovan and others say the evolution of public education will stall until lawmakers adopt a more forceful stance.

The legislation has some high-profile supporters. Four former education commissioners penned an open letter to lawmakers supporting the mandate. The opinion piece, signed by David Wolk, Ray McNulty, Richard Cate and Armando Vilaseca, says that “significant change from the status quo is always difficult, but in this case, change is essential for the benefit of students and taxpayers.”

“Today’s governance structure was never designed to support the 21st-century learning and operational needs confronting us going forward. Under the current structure there are 59 superintendents, each with accompanying administrative infrastructure, organized to support 277 school districts, each with its own school board,” the former commissioners write. “Forty-five supervisory unions include from two to 14 school districts, each operating differently, with inconsistent missions, uneven distribution of resources and, too frequently, entangled lines of authority and accountability.”

And the commissioners say that the governance structure in Vermont is at least partly responsible for a trend that has seen school costs rise even as student enrollment declines.

“Deploying our total investment of nearly $1.5 billion through roughly 300 very small entities exacerbates our challenges – it does not serve to address them,” they write.

Gov. Peter Shumlin says he thinks elected officials need to do something to curb education costs, and that forced district consolidation is a good place to start.

“I am open to any ideas that help us to right-size the ship, and I think many of the ideas in the House plan does that,” Shumlin says.

Sharpe says the House hopes to pass something this year, and that his committee is searching for a compromise. Sharpe says one possibility would establish an independent panel to draft a consolidation plan, which lawmakers would then either approve or reject in the future. He says his committee is also considering a pilot consolidation program, in which the state would look to a few communities across the state to provide models for future mergers.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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