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.