(Part two) School consolidation leads to voluntary teacher-staff reductions, VSBA exec says

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FA Note: Again, as with Part One of this series pub­lished March 17, please crit­i­cally exam­ine this arti­cle in lieu of the warn­ings of Char­lotte Iser­byt, Ani­ta Hoge, and oth­ers about pro­posed edu­ca­tion “reform” in our nation,especially char­ter (con­tract) schools, in the com­mu­nist model.

WHERE’S THE SAVINGS? Advo­cates of school con­sol­i­da­tion in Ver­mont say merg­ing schools and dis­tricts requires let­ting go teach­ers and staff, which low­ers the cost of education.

In part one of our inter­view with Stephen Dale, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Ver­mont School Boards Asso­ci­a­tion explained why his group sup­ports H.361, the House edu­ca­tion fund­ing and gov­er­nance bill.

In this seg­ment, we asked Dale to fur­ther explain the role of local com­mu­ni­ties in the school merg­er plan, and to pin­point where the cost sav­ings would come from.

Ver­mont Watch­dog: You described the pro­posed 1,100-student Pre-K-12 edu­ca­tion sys­tems as flex­i­ble and diverse. In what way are they flexible?

Dale: You can estab­lish a Pre-K-12 edu­ca­tion sys­tem with a sin­gle board or with mul­ti­ple boards. Or you can have a sin­gle-board dis­trict, which might look like what they did in Chit­ten­den East, or it might look like Mont­pe­lier, which already has a sin­gle board. The 1,100 is the size of the Pre-K-12 edu­ca­tion sys­tem, not nec­es­sar­i­ly the size of the district.

I’ll give you an exam­ple. If you’re in a region that has four choice towns and three K‑12 sys­tems, with three high schools and a cou­ple of non-oper­at­ing towns, and you’re all in the same super­vi­so­ry union, you can’t become a sin­gle dis­trict. You won’t become a sin­gle dis­trict. How­ev­er, you are expect­ed under this law to fig­ure out how all the kids in this area get a robust edu­ca­tion, and it’s not okay that four of those towns have vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing to offer kids and anoth­er cou­ple of towns have top of the line. In this sit­u­a­tion, those towns would need to come togeth­er and say how are we going to ensure that the stu­dents are going to get rea­son­ably equal oppor­tu­ni­ty, and we’re going to oper­ate this col­lec­tive in a way that has some effi­cien­cies, where we are shar­ing staff. And that can be done through dif­fer­ent kinds of con­tract­ing. It can be done through a con­tract school or any num­ber of struc­tur­al approaches.

VW: About 80 per­cent of edu­ca­tion costs come from pay and ben­e­fits to teach­ers and staff. Where will the cost sav­ings come from under H.361?

Dale: From the num­ber of per­son­nel. I’ll give you an exam­ple. Chit­ten­den East just vot­ed in Novem­ber to cre­ate a sin­gle dis­trict. Hunt­ing­ton decid­ed (against it), but the oth­er five towns all agreed to become a sin­gle dis­trict. They were in a sit­u­a­tion where one of those towns had 22 enter­ing kinder­gart­ners, and there was a debate in that town about whether you can serve 22 kinder­gart­ners with one teacher or not, or did they have to hire a new teacher.

Because they were going to be a sin­gle dis­trict, they decid­ed to approach the par­ents in those adjoin­ing towns, and in some cas­es those par­ents were actu­al­ly clos­er to the neigh­bor­ing school than to their own town school. And they approached par­ents and there were sev­en or eight who said they’d be hap­py to have their kids go to the next school build­ing over. They avoid­ed need­ing to hire a sec­ond kinder­garten teacher. That’s where the sav­ings are. Rather than hav­ing class­rooms with three or four kids in them, or run­ning AP cours­es for three kids, you find ways to max­i­mize tasks so that you have right-sized classrooms.

VW: Our low stu­dent-staff ratio results in high edu­ca­tion costs. Is there an explic­it pro­vi­sion to change this ratio, or is it mere­ly assumed that per­son­nel will be reduced as a result of mergers?

Dale: We have the low­est stu­dent-teacher, stu­dent-staff ratios in the Unit­ed States, and that dri­ves our cost per stu­dent. That’s no secret. There were a lot of dis­cus­sions in the Leg­is­la­ture about a pro­vi­sion that would be based on stu­dent-teacher ratios, where towns would be penal­ized if you had a ratio that was too low. They didn’t go there, but the expec­ta­tion would be that over time, if we could man­age our sys­tems with a lit­tle more scale, you could prob­a­bly do it with few­er teach­ers and para­pro­fes­sion­als. Exact­ly how that should play itself out, I wouldn’t want to be sit­ting in Mont­pe­lier mak­ing those deci­sions. The whole point is local boards ought to be com­ing togeth­er to fig­ure out how they can get those kinds of savings.

VW: What oth­er forces could bring the num­ber of teach­ers and staff in to line with declin­ing stu­dent enrollment?

Dale: There are many teach­ers who are eli­gi­ble for retire­ment. I’ve heard the sec­re­tary say that most of these sav­ings could be achieved by not refill­ing posi­tions for retir­ing teach­ers. It seems to me that this is like any oth­er major orga­ni­za­tion­al shift that’s hap­pen­ing in our soci­ety. You need the right num­ber of peo­ple to do a job and to man­age that in a way that’s fair and rea­son­able. Peo­ple do it all the time. On Town Meet­ing Day, there were many school dis­tricts that reduced the size of their staff by one here or two there, or three peo­ple retir­ing and not refill­ing their posi­tions. That’s how it hap­pens. It doesn’t hap­pen by some grand exodus.

VW: What if the cost sav­ings don’t materialize?

Dale: We have cau­tioned peo­ple about to not [sic] over­selling sav­ings. It’s real­ly about how you flat­ten the trend­line for cost-per-stu­dent increas­es. And over the last 12 to 15 years since we’ve been in this free fall with num­bers of stu­dents, our cost per stu­dent has risen faster than any­body else’s, and is now the high­est in the coun­try. Let’s not talk about how next year we’re going to save mil­lions of dol­lars, because it’s way too com­pli­cat­ed for that. It will hap­pen over time as peo­ple come togeth­er and have the flex­i­bil­i­ty to think more cre­ative­ly about how you use the dif­fer­ent school build­ings in a par­tic­u­lar region. And I don’t hear any­body talk­ing about clos­ing schools; it’s about deploy­ing staff in more effec­tive ways.

VW: It sounds like VSBA sup­ports con­sol­i­da­tion because deci­sion-mak­ing would remain local.

Dale:  It’s the school boards and local admin­is­tra­tors who are in the best posi­tion to get seri­ous about how to do this, and it’s not some­thing that should be engi­neered from Mont­pe­lier. That’s where the abil­i­ty to change the trend­line should come from.