Vermont School Boards Association exec: What consolidation means for schools

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FA Note: Please critically examine this article in lieu of the warnings of Charlotte Iserbyt, Anita Hoge, and others about proposed education “reform” in our nation.

As the House Education Committee’s consolidation bill gets ready to move over to the Senate, Vermonters  are wondering what a statewide restructuring would mean for schools and school boards.

In the first of this two-part interview, Stephen Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, a group that supports consolidation, explains what H.361 would do — and wouldn’t do — to schools in Vermont.

Vermont Watchdog: Why does the VSBA support this bill?

Dale: Our membership first and foremost is concerned about the quality of education for kids at a reasonable price for taxpayers. We’ve been working with our members to address that we have fewer kids than we had before. We’ve had difficulty getting our systems to a size that matches the number of kids. We have the lowest student-teacher ratio in the country.

VW: What are school board members saying about the state of education in Vermont?

Dale: We heard from our members last fall, and the common theme was we have to find a way to build scale and employ staff with more flexibility. Right now, when things are tight, you have to cut French, you have to cut AP classes, the elementary school has to cut out physical education, sports, and on and on. But if a couple of schools with 40 kids come together and figure out how to operate in a more connected way, you can share staff across schools and avoid some of the bad stuff that’s been happening.

VW: What are some examples of how consolidation might take place?

Dale: The most vivid example of that is Pomfret and Bridgewater. They voted overwhelmingly on Town Meeting Day to come together and create what is known as a joint-contract school. They’re actually closing the Bridgewater school, which has been there 120 years, and they’re going to run a single school in the Pomfret building, which is very new. They had lost a huge percentage of their population to the point where they were having great difficulty, and their voters said you’ve got to do something, because your cost per student is now so high.

Both towns approved this joint-contract school, and they reduced their cost per student from something like $16,000 per student down to $11,000 per student. So that kind of thing is going to happen and should happen. It will maintain the quality of the public education system on into the future. But those decisions, ideally, should be made by local boards.

VW: What would the new school districts look like?

Dale: The bill is worded as “Pre-K-12 education systems.” So instead of every school district being totally on its own to sink or swim in this very difficult environment, we want you to function as a system, and that could be done with a single board, or they could merge their operation and several boards become one.

VW: How would this affect towns that have school choice?

Dale: There is a multi-board option, and in some places in Vermont that will be required because you can’t blend choice towns with non-choice towns; you can’t give some kids total tuitioning choice and some kids not tuitioning choice. If the neighbors can’t agree on that kind of an issue they really can’t become part of the same school district.

VW: How many school boards do you think would be eliminated as a result of this proposed legislation?

Dale: The focus shouldn’t be on how many boards will there be at the end of the day, or how many multi-board education systems versus how many single-board education systems. It is for each region, each community, and each cluster of communities to come together to say how can we create the strongest program using this framework.

VW: Shouldn’t school boards and parents be worried about the loss of local control under state-mandated consolidation?

Dale: We think the bill is a reasonable approach to this thing because it isn’t one-size-fits-all. One of the original versions of the bill said every supervisory union will need to become a supervisory district — that’s not what this bill says. What this bill says is there are some outcomes that everybody needs to achieve that are focused on kids and efficiencies and the overall ability for the system to operate in this environment, and that people need to come together and figure out how to operate as a system. And the systems are small in nature.

There are proposals out there to run countywide systems, to have 15 or 16 large systems run out of the biggest town in the county. I don’t think our folks would accept that for a second. It would move control of education way too far away from the average citizen. What is being proposed is something akin to the current supervisory union structure, and most of those folks have a long history of working together.

VW: What is the VSBA’s stance on the spending cap provision, which many see as the only concrete mechanism in the bill for providing property tax relief?

Dale: We are very opposed to the cap provision, but not because we don’t think cost control is a legitimate objective. The cap they put on is a big problem, and I think everybody recognizes it is an indiscriminate tool. It basically says every school district would have to limit any increase to 2 percent of the cost per student that you’re currently paying. We have school districts that pay more than $20,000 per year per student, and we have some that spend under $10,000 per year per student. If you apply a 2 percent cap to all of them, you’re rewarding the big spenders and you’re penalizing the low spenders.

There may be some version that’s acceptable, but there are many versions of a cap that other states have used that would be a huge problem, not just for school boards but for the electorate, because it eliminates the ability of the electorate to make decisions about its own schools.

VW: What other provisions of the bill do you find unappealing?

Dale: We don’t like the provision that in 2018 the secretary will order everybody into a new location. There are some aspects of the bill that will be adjusted. But the general concept of the bill, we think, makes sense.