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Declining Enrollment, Part 8: Taking Stock Of The Two Rivers SU Consolidation

PJ Nelligan Photography
Art teacher Christa Balenta speaks with two students at Green Mountain High School in Chester, Vermont. Green Mountain is one of the schools in the new Two Rivers Supervisory Union that was formed two years ago.

All this week, VPR has been exploring the challenges to Vermont schools posed by dwindling student populations in our series Declining Enrollment. Some advocates say consolidation would allow small districts to share resources and offer more to students, all while saving money. Those were some of the reasons behind the consolidation that formed the Two Rivers Supervisory Union headquartered in Ludlow about two years ago.

Two Rivers Superintendent Bruce Williams joined VPR to talk about how that consolidation has been going, and whether it holds lessons for other Vermont schools. 

The supervisory union was formed by the consolidation of two other supervisory unions, which themselves comprised other school districts. This is not the purest form of consolidation that some lawmakers are pushing, which would be individual school districts consolidating into a new, single, school district. There were six schools — four elementary and two union high schools — before the consolidation, and that hasn't changed; instead, Williams says the bulk of the savings has occurred on the supervisory union level.

On post-consolidation savings

"The bulk of the savings that were achieved by the creation of the new Two Rivers Supervisory union … probably 80 to 90 percent of those savings came directly from reduced staff at the supervisory union level ... There were some initial estimates that were based on somewhat faulty data, so some people would say we didn’t save as much as those projections. I think once we got a grip on the data itself, I think our savings have come out pretty close to what we’ve projected. To give you a round number, I think we have saved something in the neighborhood of $300 per child."

"Probably 80 to 90 percent of those savings came directly from reduced staff at the supervisory union level." - Bruce Williams, Two Rivers Supervisory Union superindendent

On unchanging property taxes for residents

"No. It doesn’t happen, in the sense that – the analogy that I use is that if you think of the whole grocery bill, your milk bill may have gone down, but your overall grocery bill has still gone up. SU [supervisory union] expenses are relatively small portion. And I suppose that depends on whose perspective you’re taking. But, you know, the bulk of spending occurs in the schools and doesn’t occur at the SU level."

On the abiding sense of local control

"I actually don’t think there has been a sense of loss of control. But I do think that there’s a very deep concern among our school board members that their ability to lead, to invest themselves in schools, take ownership of the schools and care about those schools ... I think they worry that that’s a loss that would potentially occur. But our local boards still meet, they still develop their local budgets, they still vote on those and they still make the key decisions with respect to each of their local school districts. And their leadership is really important."

"It's that kind of subtlety that I'm not sure, always, our policy makers at the state level or state legislators really understand: that putting together these small asymmetrical systems is rather complex."

On the subtle challenges posed by consolidation

"There have been savings, there are a lot of positives. Some of the difficulties are more subtle. So, when you put together those asymmetrical systems, and you decide you’re going to have a unified tax rate, there are going to be distinct, I don’t know, discrepancies. There are going to be some bumps in the road. It’s going to create, in a sense, winners and losers. And I think it’s difficult.

"We had that experience when it came to implementing the special education portion of Act 153. Add all those costs to the SU level, suddenly ... you have, for example, a very small school like Mount Holly, which is pushing up against a spending limit, but they have been historically a very low-spending special ed school – suddenly they’re assessed more for special ed costs. And it’s that kind of subtlety that I’m not sure, always, our policy makers at the state level or state legislators really understand: that putting together these small asymmetrical systems is rather complex."

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Alex was a reporter and host of VPR's local All Things Considered. He was also the co-host and co-creator of the VPR program Brave Little State.
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