Vermont House Approves Forced Consolidation of School Districts

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MONTPELIER, Vt. — Despite one lawmaker’s valiant effort to pre­serve local con­trol over schools in Ver­mont, the state House on Wednes­day vot­ed 88–55 to force dis­tricts to merge into 1,100-student pre-K-12 edu­ca­tion sys­tems, or to have the Agency of Edu­ca­tion do it for them.

As rep­re­sen­ta­tives dis­cussed H.361 — the House Edu­ca­tion Com­mit­tee bill to reor­ga­nize 270-plus school dis­tricts into a few dozen large dis­tricts — a debate raged over whether restruc­tur­ing should be up to local com­mu­ni­ties or bureau­crats at in Montpelier.

State Rep. Cyn­thia Brown­ing, an Arling­ton Demo­c­rat who favors local con­trol, urged col­leagues to let Ver­mon­ters decide what’s best for their schools.

Any school dis­trict that wish­es to merge or recom­bine as pro­posed here or in any oth­er way should do so to the ben­e­fit of their com­mu­ni­ties and their stu­dents,” Brown­ing said.

How­ev­er, I don’t think school dis­tricts that are per­form­ing sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly in the eyes of their com­mu­ni­ties should be forced into a reor­ga­ni­za­tion they do not see as ben­e­fi­cial in order to sat­is­fy the direc­tions of this assembly.”

As writ­ten, H.361 tasks school boards with form­ing new pre-K-12 edu­ca­tion sys­tems. How­ev­er, dis­tricts that don’t wish to merge must seek approval from the State Board of Edu­ca­tion. About 12 dis­tricts cur­rent­ly meet the 1,100-student minimum.

Brown­ing said the process turns democ­ra­cy on its head.

The state Board of Edu­ca­tion is an appoint­ed board. Our school boards are com­posed of elect­ed mem­bers. They should not have to ask per­mis­sion of an unelect­ed board in Mont­pe­lier to con­tin­ue to per­form sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly for their com­mu­ni­ties,” she said.

Accord­ing to Brown­ing, a more demo­c­ra­t­ic approach would be to offer incen­tives for con­sol­i­da­tion — such as the bill’s tem­po­rary $0.08 reduc­tion in the statewide tax rate for merged dis­tricts — while leav­ing the final deci­sion up to communities.

If there are dis­tricts in this state that on the face of it have very good eco­nom­ic rea­sons to merge, I put it to you that they will see that and will under­take that merg­er them­selves, par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en the incen­tives in this bill.”

Why are we impos­ing a man­date to reor­ga­nize, or at least beg per­mis­sion not to reor­ga­nize, on every sin­gle school dis­trict of the state in order to address the prob­lems of par­tic­u­lar dis­tricts?” she asked.

After hear­ing Browning’s impas­sioned plea, law­mak­ers vot­ed 80–62 to sink Browning’s amendment.

While a final vote takes place Thurs­day, this week’s action by House law­mak­ers may not sit well with local edu­ca­tion leaders.

Mer­ri Gree­nia, prin­ci­pal of Crafts­bury Schools, a K‑12 school sys­tem in the Orleans South­west Super­vi­so­ry Union, expressed dis­gust at the House’s vote.

Small schools have been made a scape­goat,” Gree­nia told Ver­mont Watchdog.

Peo­ple are going to look back at this 10 years down the road and say we didn’t save a nick­el and we cre­at­ed all kinds of havoc.”

Gree­nia said her school has a high grad­u­a­tion rate and a high per­cent­age of stu­dents who go to college.

In addi­tion, she said, the 170 stu­dents who attend Crafts­bury have robust edu­ca­tion­al options. The school offers AP cours­es and five lan­guage stud­ies: Span­ish, French, Man­darin, Latin and Amer­i­can Sign. About half of the stu­dents play on junior var­si­ty or var­si­ty sports teams.

The school also leads the state in aca­d­e­m­ic performance.

Accord­ing to New Eng­land Com­mon Assess­ment Pro­gram (NECAPrank­ings for 2013–2014, Crafts­bury stu­dents are No.1 in math and lan­guage pro­fi­cien­cy. The scores show that small schools can pro­vide top-qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion­al opportunities.

In fact, of the top five NECAP per­form­ers in the state, four schools have few­er than 400 stu­dents: Crafts­bury Schools (170 stu­dents), Stowe Mid­dle and High School (399 stu­dents), Con­cord Schools (208 stu­dents), and Riven­dell Acad­e­my (217 students).

State Rep. Sandy Haas, P‑Rochester, who rep­re­sents con­stituents in one of the small­er super­vi­so­ry unions in the state, explained why she opposed H.361.

The towns I rep­re­sent … have just agreed to merge with anoth­er super­vi­so­ry union. We’re going to have 10 towns instead of five. And this bill tells us, ‘Thank you very much, that’s not good enough, you have to do some­thing else.’” she said.

Haas said her local school board chose to lev­el-fund the bud­get this year while reassess­ing the num­ber of teach­ers required to deliv­er qual­i­ty education.

We are ask­ing those ques­tions at the local lev­el, that work is going on, and peo­ple in Ver­mont do not need to be told what to do by this body,” she said.

While Gree­nia con­ced­ed Crafts­bury has one of the high­est per-pupil costs in the state, she said expens­es and tax­es are on the decline in her dis­trict, and she doubt­ed con­sol­i­da­tion would achieve sig­nif­i­cant savings.

If you increase the respon­si­bil­i­ties of a super­in­ten­dent by reduc­ing the num­ber of super­in­ten­dents, it defies log­ic to think there’s not going to be an equal num­ber of assis­tant super­in­ten­dents and oth­er cen­tral office peo­ple who come to take on those extra tasks,” Gree­nia said.

Researchers who study the impact of con­sol­i­da­tion in rur­al areas tend to agree with Greenia.

In Jan­u­ary, researchers at Penn State University’s Cen­ter on Rur­al Edu­ca­tion issued a pol­i­cy brief on Vermont’s edu­ca­tion reform. Among oth­er find­ings, the researchers wrote that “nation­al and local research clear­ly shows con­sol­i­da­tion does not pro­duce finan­cial sav­ings or low­er per pupil costs.”

2011 study on Nebras­ka schools con­clud­ed con­sol­i­da­tion results in dis­crim­i­na­tion against the poor, low­er stu­dent per­for­mance, dis­sat­is­fied teach­ers and the frag­ment­ing of local communities.

Gree­nia said Ver­mont offi­cials have dis­missed the research.

The (Penn State) report was in favor of retain­ing small schools as the cen­ter of the com­mu­ni­ty. Almost imme­di­ate­ly the Agency of Edu­ca­tion shot holes through the report. Before the vote today, anoth­er report came out that said small schools are real­ly inef­fi­cient and don’t offer oppor­tu­ni­ties for kids and spoke in favor of the Agency’s point of view,” she said.

While H.361 has its crit­ics, near­ly every­one agrees law­mak­ers must do some­thing to reverse Vermont’s out-of-con­trol edu­ca­tion spending.

Ver­mont spends about $19,000 per pupil on edu­ca­tion and sup­ports an expen­sive stu­dent-to-staff ratio of 4.7 to 1.

More­over, while staffing has remained steady over the past 15 years, stu­dent enroll­ment has plum­met­ed by more than 20,000 stu­dents, dri­ving up costs for prop­er­ty tax­pay­ers who fund the edu­ca­tion sys­tem. Ver­mont ranks 48th in prop­er­ty tax bur­den, accord­ing to the non­par­ti­san Tax Foundation.

State Rep. Hei­di Scheuer­mann, R‑Stowe, chid­ed col­leagues who vot­ed for the bill, say­ing, “This is not what Ver­mon­ters have been clam­or­ing for. This is not what they sent us here to do.”

Brown­ing said forced con­sol­i­da­tion was not the Ver­mont way.

How would Ver­mont feel if Con­gress down in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., said to Rhode Island and Ver­mont, ‘You guys are real­ly small. This is inef­fi­cient to have these two dif­fer­ent states. We think you should merge.’ … That’s the mes­sage this body is send­ing the hard-work­ing mem­bers of all our school boards.”