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

New School Consolidation Bill Addresses 'Top-Down' Concerns

Bob Kinzel
Bristol Rep. David Sharpe, chairman of the House Education Committee, says this year's legislation takes a different approach than last year's consolidation bill, which failed to pass.

Legislation that would encourage school districts to join together with neighboring communities has been unveiled at the Statehouse.

Backers of the bill say the plan has a lot of flexibility, but the proposal includes consequences for districts that fail to take any action.

The House Education committee has been looking at this issue for several weeks. Bristol Rep. David Sharpe, the chairman of the panel, says this legislation takes a different approach from last year's school consolidation bill that failed to pass.

The 2014 bill encouraged school districts to consolidate, but if they failed to act after four years, a special state panel would design and mandate the consolidation.

Sharpe says there were a lot of concerns about this "top down approach," so his panel is trying something different.

"I would expect that we continue to see a fairly wide variety of how we approach school systems in the state. But it'll be designed from local communities, not from the state." - Bristol Rep. David Sharpe

But first, like the 2014 bill, Sharpe says this legislation urges districts to expand with nearby districts.

"It encourages local school districts and supervisory unions to realign themselves in school districts that make sense, that are larger.” Sharpe says. “That will be more efficient." 

But Sharpe says the legislation doesn't include a one-size-fits-all approach. He says some districts might consider a major expansion while others might take a more limited approach.

"I would expect that we continue to see a fairly wide variety of how we approach school systems in the state,” says Sharpe. “But it'll be designed from local communities, not from the state."

There is a disincentive for districts that don't make an effort to expand.

Here's what would happen: Let's say a supervisory union has a high school and eight elementary schools and each school has its own board. If the supervisory union doesn't try to reduce administrative overhead through a merger, a single school board would be created to set the budgets of all of the schools in the district.

Sharpe says there are benefits to this approach.

“The budgeting and tax rates would be done district-wide, but the district would be much larger and the school board and the superintendent would be much more able to flexibly assign tasks for employees through the district."

The House Education committee is expected to take several weeks of testimony on the draft plan.

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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