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

Mandate Mergers? Legislature Weighs Approach To District Consolidation

VPR/Bob Kinzel
Gov. Peter Shumlin discusses his plan to make the school consolidation process voluntary.

Legislation consolidating school districts across the state is on a fast track at the Statehouse. One of the key outstanding issues surrounding the bill is whether the state can force reluctant school districts to merge against their will.

"Today we are challenged to meet the needs of 21st century students within the confines of 20th century delivery system and a governance system from the 19th century." House Education Chairwoman Joey Donovan

As the House was giving its final approval to a school consolidation bill that includes a mandatory approach, the Senate Education Committee considered a voluntary plan drafted by the Shumlin Administration.

The House bill creates a six year time frame for smaller school districts to consolidate with neighboring towns. Communities that refuse to merge by 2020 would be forced into new larger districts created by a special committee. The goal is to reduce the state’s 273 districts to roughly 50.

The House Education Committee spent most of the session working on this bill. Chairwoman Joey Donovan, D-Burlington,  says changes are need because Vermont’s student population has declined by almost 20 percent over the past two decades leaving the state with some very small school districts.

“Today we are challenged to meet the needs of 21st century students within the confines of 20th century delivery system,” said Donovan. “And a governance system from the 19th century."

Rep. Jeff Wilson, D-Manchester, said larger districts are needed to provide a full range of educational opportunities to all students.

“Where some schools have cut programs to the bone, their next door neighbor just down the road is able to offer a full compliment of course offering and student activities,” he said.

But Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, said the bill was a missed opportunity to lower property taxes.

“My constituents haven’t expressed interest to me in giving up control of their budgets. They haven’t expressed interest to me in giving up their local school boards,” said Komline. “They have asked for property tax reform.”

And Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, R-Newport, had a blunt message for the House Education Committee.

“You do what you want with your school district and you let us figure it out for ourselves because you know something I think we do it better in the Kingdom. Leave us alone.”

Sensing that the Senate wouldn’t go along with the mandatory provisions of the House bill, Gov. Peter Shumlin drafted a new plan that made the entire process voluntary with new financial incentives. The governor says he wants action this year.

“I don’t think that Vermonters who are struggling to pay their property taxes are going to have a lot of patience for the argument that we couldn’t get anything done because we didn’t have time,” said Shumlin. “I’m very encouraged that we can bring together the two sides to get it done.”

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, is the chairman of the Senate Education committee. He favors the governor’s voluntary approach.

“Someone referred to it as Consolidation Light,” said McCormack. “Vermont has a long tradition of local control and the idea of the state simply doing away with local school boards is deeply offensive to a lot of people.”

Legislative leaders are working towards a May 10th adjournment date. McCormack says the only way the consolidation bill can pass given this timeframe is for both the Senate and the House to suspend their rules a number of times. And he’s not certain that this will happen.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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