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

House and Senate Clash Over School Governance

Angela Evancie
House Speaker Shap Smith speaks at the Statehouse on May 8, where the House and Senate are in disagreement about a meausre that could lead to consolidation of Vermont's smaller schools.

One of the biggest issues to be decided before lawmakers adjourn for the year is a measure that will ultimately lead to the consolidation of the state’s smaller schools.

The Senate favors an approach that makes this process completely voluntary. But this decision sets up a major conflict with the House that could derail the bill.

The Senate bill encourages smaller school districts to merge by offering them a package of new financial incentives. The goal is to create districts with at least 1,000 students in order to provide all students with expanded educational opportunities. Backers of the bill also believe there could be some administrative savings with the larger districts.

The Senate plan makes this process completely voluntary, although it does require schools that don’t want to consolidate to outline their reasons to the Secretary of Education.

"If this is a good idea I think we can trust our school boards to recognize that it is a good idea." Senate Education Chairman Dick McCormack on why consolidation efforts should be voluntary

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dick McCormack points out that the House spent almost four months on this bill while his committee has had only a few weeks to review it. That’s one of the reasons why he supports the voluntary approach.

“I don’t want to simply blow them off and say 'no,' instead what we’re doing is saying. 'ok people should look at this people should consider it,'” said McCormack. “I can live with that, that’s a compromise I’m willing to live with.”

Burlington Rep. Joey Donovan is the chairwoman of the House Education Committee. The House bill gives districts four years to merge. If they haven’t done it by 2018, then a special committee will do it for them. Donovan says it’s critical to keep this provision in the bill.

“I think they have to be encouraged by the fact that they have a final window of opportunity to do it or else it will probably be suggested a way for them to merge with other districts,” said Donovan.

However, McCormack has a very different point of view on this issue.

“I disagree with that. I think you shouldn’t have an end game mandatory point because maybe it’s not a good idea. Maybe the people who don’t want to do it are right,” said McCormack. “If this is a good idea I think we can trust our school boards to recognize that it’s a good idea.”

Donovan says the state already has a process in place to offer school districts financial incentives to merge and she says very few districts have taken advantage of this opportunity. She says the Senate plan is really no different than the state’s current law.

“No, it doesn’t look to us that it is,” said Donovan. “So we’re hoping we’ll be able to have, as we said, a conference committee we’re hoping we can certainly make some strides forward.”

Finding a compromise between the House and the Senate could be very difficult because McCormack says House members need to realize that the Senate bill is the best plan they are ever going to get.

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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