Windham County Districts Revolt Against School Consolidation in Vermont

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Photo courtesy of Windham Southeast Supervisory Union PUSH BACK: Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Ron Stahley co-wrote a letter with school board leaders expressing strong opposition to school consolidation in Vermont.

Pho­to cour­tesy of Wind­ham South­east Super­vi­so­ry Union
PUSH BACK: Wind­ham South­east Super­vi­so­ry Union Super­in­ten­dent Ron Stahley co-wrote a let­ter with school board lead­ers express­ing strong oppo­si­tion to school con­sol­i­da­tion in Vermont.

A back­lash over statewide school con­sol­i­da­tion is under way in Ver­mont as mem­bers of the Wind­ham South­east Super­vi­so­ry Union Board sent a let­ter to state offi­cials this week express­ing unit­ed oppo­si­tion to H.361.

At a full meet­ing of the Board Tues­day night, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from all six school boards in the super­vi­so­ry union vot­ed in favor of a state­ment crit­i­cal of the edu­ca­tion reform bill passed last week by the House of Representatives.

The mem­bers sent the state­ment Wednes­day to Gov. Peter Shum­lin, state law­mak­ers, Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Rebec­ca Hol­combe and the State Board of Education.

In the let­ter obtained by Ver­mont Watch­dog, the mem­bers wrote that the school boards “oppose this bill in its present form” and are “deeply concerned.”

We are deeply con­cerned about pro­posed con­tent and impli­ca­tions of H.361 which empow­ers the State Board of Edu­ca­tion to deter­mine the exis­tence of our local school boards, and sets arbi­trary spend­ing caps with­out con­sid­er­a­tion of the true effects on the dis­tricts,” the let­ter said.

WSESU Super­in­ten­dent Ron Stahley and sev­er­al board mem­bers draft­ed the let­ter to com­mu­ni­cate numer­ous con­cerns about dis­trict consolidation.

In par­tic­u­lar, the mem­bers claim H.361 fails to include per­for­mance data nec­es­sary to eval­u­ate indi­vid­ual schools and districts.

They also claim dis­cus­sions about edu­ca­tion costs have ignored the bur­den on local bud­gets caused by unfund­ed state and fed­er­al man­dates relat­ed to spe­cial edu­ca­tion, food pro­grams and Pre-K-12 programs.

On the issue of local con­trol, mem­bers took aim at the Agency of Edu­ca­tion, which would receive ulti­mate deci­sion-mak­ing author­i­ty under H.361.

We are con­cerned that the Agency of Edu­ca­tion is not fund­ed or staffed suf­fi­cient­ly to acquire a com­pre­hen­sive view of the many schools and dis­tricts with a his­to­ry of suc­cess­ful approach­es to finan­cial man­age­ment and inno­v­a­tive edu­ca­tion­al programs.

The let­ter rep­re­sents the views of school boards in Brat­tle­boro, Guil­ford, Ver­non, Put­ney and Dummerston.

Steve Red­mond, vice chair of the school board in Guil­ford, told Ver­mont Watch­dog a statewide merg­er of dis­tricts could prove dis­as­trous for Vermont’s edu­ca­tion system.

Photo courtesy of Putney Central School SCHOOL MERGER: The six school districts in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union represent 10 schools across the towns of Brattleboro, Guilford, Putney, Vernon and Dummerston.

Pho­to cour­tesy of Put­ney Cen­tral School
SCHOOL MERGER: The six school dis­tricts in the Wind­ham South­east Super­vi­so­ry Union rep­re­sent 10 schools across the towns of Brat­tle­boro, Guil­ford, Put­ney, Ver­non and Dummerston.

I have no idea what a merg­er like that would look like. I would guess the peo­ple vot­ing for H.361 have no idea what that would look like. That’s one of the big prob­lems here. It’s as if some­body has tak­en an arbi­trary num­ber of 60 and said that’s going to be a lot bet­ter than two hun­dred and some­thing. What thought or evi­dence has gone into that?” Red­mond said.

Accord­ing to Red­mond, elim­i­nat­ing the boards that man­age local schools could dra­mat­i­cal­ly increase edu­ca­tion costs in Vermont.

To me, it’s amaz­ing, this idea that it’s going to save mon­ey by con­sol­i­dat­ing and get­ting rid of school boards,” he said.

There’s a tremen­dous num­ber of man-hours that come out of the school boards in Ver­mont. To elim­i­nate boards, and then pass the work they do on to paid employ­ees, is not going to be a cost sav­ings. You will go from pay­ing some­body $800 a year to pay­ing some­body $50,000 to do equiv­a­lent work.”

Across Ver­mont, hun­dreds of school boards man­age finan­cial and main­te­nance deci­sions for schools. Indi­vid­ual school board mem­bers also serve on vital com­mit­tees, such as the WSESU Finance Com­mit­tee in Wind­ham, which over­sees bud­gets for the six dis­tricts in the union. Mem­bers of the Build­ing and Grounds Com­mit­tee man­age repairs and con­tracts relat­ed to the main­te­nance of facilities.

The amount of work done is tremen­dous, and it’s basi­cal­ly vol­un­teer work,” Red­mond said.

Ear­li­er this week, school lead­ers and board mem­bers in Brat­tle­boro and Guil­ford expressed frus­tra­tion over the pro­posed merg­er and said many law­mak­ers are in the dark about the prob­lems schools face in their own districts.

In an email to Ver­mont Watch­dog, state rep­re­sen­ta­tive Car­olyn Par­tridge, D‑Windham, said res­i­dents may have mis­un­der­stand­ings about H.361.

I think there is some con­fu­sion over the con­sol­i­da­tion piece. What is being asked is that dis­tricts have a con­ver­sa­tion about con­sol­i­dat­ing func­tions, not nec­es­sar­i­ly schools,” Par­tridge said.

The Wind­ham Cen­tral Super­vi­so­ry Union is a good exam­ple of some of the things being sug­gest­ed — shar­ing teach­ers amongst schools, for example.”

Par­tridge is one of 62 Democ­rats who vot­ed in favor of H.361. in an April 1 pre­lim­i­nary roll call vote. The con­tro­ver­sial bill passed with just 88 votes.

Oth­er law­mak­ers across Wind­ham Coun­ty who vot­ed in favor of con­sol­i­da­tion include Emi­ly Long, D‑Newfane; David Deen, D‑Westminister; Ann Man­war­ing, D‑Wilmington; Matthew Trieber, D‑Bellows Falls; Lau­ra Sibil­ia, I‑Dover; and Oliv­er Olsen, I‑Londonderry.

Unit­ed oppo­si­tion of boards in Wind­ham South­east stands in stark con­trast to the endorse­ment of H.361 by the Ver­mont School Boards Asso­ci­a­tion.

When asked about VSBA’s sup­port for dis­trict con­sol­i­da­tion, Red­mond replied, “Many of us are quite sur­prised and dis­sat­is­fied with the lead­er­ship,” adding, “I con­sid­er Ver­mont School Boards Asso­ci­a­tion some­what of a strange orga­ni­za­tion. I dis­agree with many of the VSBA’s poli­cies and procedures.”

Advo­cates of con­sol­i­da­tion say it saves mil­lions of dol­lars through new effi­cien­cies and economies of scale. Oppo­nents say dis­tricts already use coop­er­a­tive agree­ments to pur­chase school mate­ri­als and oth­er neces­si­ties at low prices.

When asked where H.361’s cost sav­ings would come from, Stephen Dale, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the VSBA, said through teacher and staff reduc­tions that would occur over time, whether through attri­tion or merg­ing classrooms.

Red­mond said reduc­ing teach­ers won’t work in Guilford.

If you want to cut teach­ers, then cut teach­ers. But the only way you can cut teach­ers in a school of our size is to close the school down. We can’t func­tion with any few­er teach­ers. We’re list­ed as hav­ing 150 stu­dents. When you cal­cu­late the num­ber of teach­ers it’s one per grade,” he said.

Red­mond was par­tic­u­lar­ly upset by the oft-repeat­ed claim that small schools are respon­si­ble for dri­ving up the cost of edu­ca­tion in Vermont.

It’s been framed as a large schools ver­sus small schools argu­ment, and that small schools are inef­fi­cient. But the real costs that dri­ve tax­es up are, in fact, the larg­er schools, because they rep­re­sent much larg­er num­bers of the tax dol­lars involved,” he said.

Elim­i­nat­ing small schools is not going to solve this prob­lem, and I think it’s going to increase tax­es,” he said. “It is not the small­er schools that are caus­ing the tax prob­lems in the state.”

Read the full let­ter from the Wind­ham South­east Super­vi­so­ry Union.