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Small Schools Ask State Board To Go Easy With New Grant Rules

Chaunce Benedict, from Swanton, attended the State Board of Education meeting in Barre. Benedict is a former superintendent and says small schools should not lose their annual grant payments.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Chaunce Benedict, from Swanton, attended the State Board of Education meeting in Barre. Benedict is a former superintendent and says small schools should not lose their annual grant payments.

The State Board of Education is bumping up against a June 30 deadline for addressing proposed changes to Vermont’s small school grant program.

The Legislature wants to put new restrictions on which of Vermont’s small schools receive the annual grants, and the state board is tasked with writing the rules.

When lawmakers passed Act 60 in 1997 and Vermont moved over to a statewide education, legislators recognized that small schools needed a little financial help to survive the new system.

So for the past two decades, small school grants have been given out each year based solely on the number of kids inside those buildings.

But State Board of Education member John Carroll says that sentiment has changed.

The new metrics

“Historically, as I understand it, the small schools grants have been justified by the notion that small schools faced certain burdens that other schools do not,” Carroll said at the last State Board of Education meeting.

“What this suggests is, no, we’re not interested in rewarding schools for facing certain burdens, we’re interested in rewarding them for certain achievements.”

Shown here are the schools that would be affected by the new small school metrics. Tap the top left to see options to sort by. Toggle to sort by county or by grades served. Tap the flag to see details on each institution. Source: Vermont Department of Education.

But coming up with a way to measure those achievements has been tricky.

The board is trying to come up with a system that can measure how a small school is performing.

They’ve been considering metrics based on test scores, poverty indicators, student-to-staff ratios and equity measures.

State board chairwoman Krista Huling said the Legislature didn’t give the board any money and so they have to use the existing data points that are available.

“That’s why this process has taken so long,” she said. “We keep running up against this philosophical idea of how do we measure schools, and it doesn’t feel right. And that’s why we’re all struggling with this.”

Board members and community members from some of the towns with small schools jammed the last state board meeting to convince the board not to draw up the new metrics so restrictively that they would eliminate some of the schools.

"If you approve the metrics as discussed ... you will be sacrificing educational opportunities for some of the least advantaged children in the state." — Carin Park, Barnard School Board Chairwoman

And after an hour or so of debate, North Country Supervisory Union Superintendent John Castle showed his frustration with the process.

“It’s very apparent to me that you have no idea of what you’re doing,” Castle told the board. “This is so ethically flawed. You know it. You need to challenge the Legislature and give it back to them.”

And in a small school with five or six classrooms, losing that funding is a very big deal.

The power of the small school grant

Right now, about 40 schools get the annual grant. And for a lot of these schools, the annual grants pay for a classroom teacher.

Barnard school board chairwoman Carin Park said any small school that loses the grant will struggle to remain open.

“If you approve the metrics as discussed at your last meeting, you will be sacrificing educational opportunities for some of the least advantaged children in the state, closing many rural schools and forcing children to travel to distant schools that do not support them as well as their community school,” Park said.

Lawmakers decided to examine the small school grant when they first were putting together the details of Act 46, Vermont’s school district consolidation law.

When legislators were looking for incentives to get school districts to merge, they said small schools could keep the grants if they consolidate with their neighbors.

So less than 40 small schools that are on the chopping block are those that haven’t been able to merge.

Brigham v. State: A Vermont Supreme Court decision that led to the Legislature passing the 1997 Equal Education Opportunity Act, or Act 60.

And according to David Kelley from Greensboro, cutting off the funding likely violates the Brigham decision, which drives all of Vermont’s education funding debates in the first place.

“Providing small school grants to children in merged districts, while denying those resources to children in towns that have concluded after careful deliberation that consolidation is not in the best interests of their children or their communities, will be a violation of Brigham,” Kelley said.

“We may be handicapping some of our already poorest and smallest rural schools by denying them the same resources we provide to schools in merged districts.”

By the end of Friday’s meeting, the board had settled on a framework, based around a point system that rewards schools for meeting benchmarks.

But there are still details to work out around how many points will be required to retain the grants.  

Even after the board figures this all out, small schools will have to apply for the grant every year.

State Board of Education member Oliver Olsen said there are still a lot of unknowns on just how these new metrics will play out this year and into the future.

“I’m really concerned that we can come up with these numbers, and we have no idea,” he said. “We can end up where everyone is approved or one where no one is approved.”

The State Board of Education has one more chance to nail down the new small school metrics at its two-day retreat on June 27 and 28.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state. 
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