A proposal that would dramatically change the structure of public education is gaining traction in the Vermont Legislature.

School boards would be consolidated into smaller units that would govern larger groups of students, if a plan now in the House continues to build momentum. The House Education Committee is considering the elimination of the state's 60 supervisory unions and "realigning" the state's 282 school districts into 30 to 60 districts. The deadline for the consolidation of school boards would be January 2018.

The way public schools are currently managed at the local level is outdated, lawmakers say. They believe Vermont's 19th century governance structure is hampering educational opportunities for students, especially in rural areas.

Lawmakers say changing the way schools are governed will improve curriculum development, teaching practices, access to data and ultimately lead to better educational outcomes for students.

Lawmakers hold the Burlington school district up as a model. There, one board manages a pre-K to 12th grade public school system for 4,000 students.

A secondary result, they say, could be potential cost savings and more stability for taxpayers through better management of financial resources.

Rep. Peter Peltz, D-Woodbury, floated a two-page memo last month that outlined the criteria for realignment including educational opportunities, fiscal efficiency, community involvement, transportation and stability for taxpayers. A bill has not yet been drafted.

"The general proposal is to make sure we do our best to channel resources on the whole broad front of resources and finances to encourage good practices and support for principals and teachers at the school level by first looking at how we're channeling it currently and by looking at the governance structure and the board structure and trying to streamline that to make it more efficient," Peltz said. "We have a huge disparity in terms of educational outcomes in this state."

School boards and the Agency of Education would have several years to decide what shape the new districts would take based on historic patterns, geography, transportation and educational programs. An iterative map would be developed and mutually agreed upon by state and local officials over an extended period of time.

Two organizations that would be directly affected by the proposal - the Vermont Superintendents Association and the Vermont School Boards Association - are willing to consider the plan now taking shape in the House Committee on Education. The state's teachers union is also open to the idea.

Representatives from the superintendents and school boards associations say consolidating school districts into larger units of governance would solve one of the biggest problems for rural supervisory unions: Finding qualified superintendents who are willing to manage five to eight separate local school boards. The turnover rate for superintendents this year is 30 percent.

Rebecca Holcombe, the new secretary of education, would be charged with creating and managing a design team to work with local school boards to determine how best to combine districts in regions of the state. Her primary concern is whether restructuring public education will help students excel.

Holcombe, who was appointed to office by the governor in December, has said repeatedly that any structural realignment of the public education system must ultimately lead to better outcomes for all students. Most schools in Vermont have failed to meet the federal government's proficiency requirements for low-income students under the No Child Left Behind law.

"It has to be about student outcomes," Holcombe told lawmakers recently. "It can't be that some of the kids get opportunities and others don't. If you fail on that I would really question if this is good for kids."

The current system has problems, Holcombe says. She is concerned about superintendent churn in the current system and how a lack of stable leadership has eroded student achievement.

"If you have coherence around goals and you are clear about what you want children to do, you have a better chance of getting there," Holcombe said.

There are 12 different types of schools in Vermont that come in roughly five different sizes - all of which take a different approach to best practices, curriculum and assessment, she says.

As a result, her agency has a difficult time gathering data from schools and assessing best practices. This makes it impossible to draw conclusions about schools that are succeeding or failing. "It's very difficult to assess problems when you don't have comparable data," she said.

Larger district units, Holcombe said, could improve reporting requirements, stabilize leadership and create an environment in which schools can innovate.

And then there is the money question.

Student enrollment has dropped 20 percent over the past 15 years, but spending continued to increased over that same period.

Despite the efforts of local boards to keep spending in check, Vermont has the second highest rate of spending per pupil in the nation, after New York state. It costs $18,571 a year to educate a child in Vermont.

Statewide property taxes went up 5 cents per $100 of assessed value this year and will likely go up an additional 7 cents this year. Education experts worry that many school budgets will be rejected on Town Meeting Day even though local school boards have tried to keep spending increases below 3 percent. In many towns taxes will go up 8 percent to 11 percent, as a result of spending in previous years (school spending went up 5 percent last year, for example) and shifts in the state's Education Fund, including the rebasing of the General Fund transfer and new programs paid for out of the fund including pre-K programs, adult basic education, prison education and a new dual enrollment program for high school seniors.

If voters start to balk en masse at the price tag, some educators say there will be cuts to basic services and teacher layoffs that could erode the public school system.

In a climate of declining enrollments, Holcombe says, it's going to get harder and harder for very small school districts to provide a good education for students.

Joel Cook, CEO of the Vermont-NEA, stresses that the state would be "well-advised not to gloss over the fundamental role that local communities will play in the effectiveness and passage of any change plan."

"We do not oppose changes to the governance system, so long as whatever system is in place provides the best array of educational opportunities for all - not just most - of our children and the transition to any new system does not disrupt the lives of educators or their ability to focus on their jobs," Cook said in a statement. "We believe there is a continuing and fundamental place in this discussion for local communities, not merely because of their historic role in education but also because of the continuing and fundamental place their public schools play in the life of our communities. To the extent any plan addresses these and other fundamental matters, we will be able to lend our expertise and possible support."

Jeff Francis, chair of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said the formation of single pre-K to 12th grade school districts would enable schools to deliver educational opportunities and help school leaders measure results.

"More and more we hear that supervisory unions don't have utility in the context of a 21st century learning system," Francis said. "There's a tremendous amount of redundancy that goes on from school district to school district, and as our school districts get smaller, you see more and more struggling to see how they can create opportunities for kids in their communities."

Lawmakers make no promises about cost savings. Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, chair of House Education, supports the new governance system and she says it could lead to better cost effectiveness over time.

"I think it's accountability for taxpayers; I think it's more accountability for students, and so I think we'll see where we'll go with it," Donovan said.

A complicated system

Vermont has a multi-layered system of local governance. The state has 282 school districts with 1,440 school board members and 60 supervisory unions. In rural areas of the state, many school boards manage student populations of fewer than 100 students.

Vermont has the lowest ratio of students to school board members in the nation: One school board member for 57 students. Maine, which has the second lowest ratio, has one school board member for 135 students. In other states, school boards manage districts with tens of thousands of students.

The last time Vermont changed the governance structure for public schools was in 1892 when the state went from 2,500 local school boards to a total of 300. In the 1960s, with the advent of the interstate highway system and a burgeoning student population, Gov. Phil Hoff pressed for a union school district system to support funding for better high schools.

Over the years, governors have attempted to reduce the number of school districts. Hoff tried and failed, as did Gov. Madeleine Kunin in the 1980s. Richard Cate, commissioner of the Department of Education, floated a plan in 2006 to consolidate supervisory unions that was also relegated to the dustbin.

This time, lawmakers in House Education are taking the lead, and they're taking a different tack after their previous attempt (Act 153), which gives local school districts incentives to merge voluntarily, failed.

Political will appears to be building behind the structural changes to school governance. House Speaker Shap Smith told the Democratic caucus last month to keep an open mind as House Education creates a framework for a new system.

"I think we may be at a unique point in time in the history of education in the state of Vermont," Smith said. "We have a lot to be proud of, and I think we could do even more. The educational community has been looking at issues that have been on the front burner around governance and the way we structure our educational system for a long time. The last time we looked at school districts in the state of Vermont was in 1892. It's good to look at governance every century and a half."

Smith asked lawmakers to ask questions about the current system. "Are our institutions now presenting the best education opportunities that they could? Are there barriers in the current system and should we take a look at that? There are some barriers, and we could take a look at our way of doing things."

Peltz and others say the system has to make a historic shift in the way schools are governed in order to address a convergence of pressures - including global competition for jobs and dwindling tax capacity - that are hurting local public schools. Lawmakers say realigning the governance structure will result in more equitable student access to educational opportunities, better school management, shared use of resources and eventual cost savings.

Declining enrollments have resulted in the depopulation of many small schools in Vermont. Since the late 1990s, the student population has dropped from about 105,000 students to about 89,000 in fiscal year 2014.

Of the state's 282 school districts, 231 have fewer than 500 students; 92 districts have fewer than 100 students.

Statewide property tax revenues are distributed to schools based on a per student reimbursement. As small schools have seen a further erosion of student enrollments, funding from the state has also declined.

A proposal that would dramatically change the structure of public education is gaining traction in the Vermont Legislature. Some school districts are so small that a slight change in the factors that affect the formula for state and local funding can translate into steep increases in local property taxes. The small town of Walden, for example, rejected its school budget six times in the past year. The factors in play? The district saw a 13 percent increase in taxes, a decline in school enrollments and several students who need special education services moved to town.

"When you only have relatively few students any variables - a few families moving out of town, students with high needs moving in, changes in property values - any of these things can dramatically change taxes," according to Steve Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association.

Meanwhile, student enrollment in the state's cities is growing and costs are going up in larger districts to accommodate the need for more supports for low-income and English as a Second Language students.

School boards consider the plan

The plan would necessarily mean a reduction in the number of school board members in Vermont. The issue is very emotional for many school board members who see local schools as the center of their communities.

Nevertheless, the 29-member executive board of the Vermont School Boards Association last week voted unanimously to pursue alternatives to the current system with the Legislature and the Agency of Education.

It was a difficult decision, Dale said, and support from the boards is fragile. "We want to be engaged, but we did not take a specific vote on any of the outcomes," he said.

Board members are concerned about how the state will partner with local districts to create an equitable system that continues to maintain the close ties between communities and schools.

They understand that change, however painful, is necessary, Dale says.

"People are saying the status quo is not justifiable, that there needs to be a new path forward, but it's critical that we get it right because it's a very fragile conversation and could come apart at any time," Dale said. "We need to start with the fundamental belief that it's important to go to a different place, and the question is what is that place."

Dale expects the broader VSBA membership to react in a one of three ways. "Some people will be enthusiastic, and some people will be angry, and some people will be wondering what the heck you're doing," he said.

It's important that the state make a commitment to be a partner in the process with local school boards, otherwise it will come off as a top-down directive from Montpelier, he said.

School boards are under pressure from local voters who are questioning dramatic increases in property taxes, even though boards have done an "unbelievable job" on their budgets this year, keeping spending increases below 3 percent.

Nevertheless, some districts are seeing double-digit tax increases.

"We are very concerned about this upcoming town meeting," Dale said. "If any sizable budgets come down, you can predict in small school schools teachers will be cut. This won't be coming out of something you wouldn't notice this will come out of opportunities for students."