Though the legislation has yet to get final approval from the House, education reform advocates have scored a major victory with the first floor vote, as the Senate Education Committee began a review of education cost containment legislation on Tuesday.
H.883 calls for the merger of the state's 270-plus school districts into some 45-55 expanded school districts. The idea is that by pooling resources, talent and money, schools will become more efficient and better able to provide opportunities for students, develop unified curriculums, and set standards for best teacher practices. The bill sets deadlines for merger recommendations and implementation over a six year period. A Design Team would draw the districts after taking input from local communities.
But there is no guarantee that eliminating hundreds of school board members as part of the district mergers will save money, and many lawmakers question whether the sweeping changes outlined in H.883 will result in better academic experiences for students.
The consolidation issue, every bit as contentious as political redistricting, has divided the House - not along party lines, but along the fault line of large and small communities.
Democrats and Republicans voted no and yes, depending on where they lived and how their constituents would be affected.
The discussion over H.883 lasted more than three hours, and the debate centered on the frustration lawmakers feel about the impact of higher statewide property tax rates on taxpayers and local schools. The statewide rate increased 5 cents for residential property owners last year and will go up at least 4 cents (possibly 6 cents) this year. Next year the rate will be between 6 cents and 8 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
Taxpayers voted down 36 school budgets on Town Meeting Day. Shortly after H.883, which had been discussed in House Education, began to gain momentum.
In the extensive debate that transpired Tuesday night, a number of lawmakers faulted H.883 because it doesn't explicitly address the education funding formula and rapidly increasing property tax rates. Detractors also complained that their districts are operating efficiently already and they don't need Montpelier telling them how to run their schools. Critics said local school districts would lose control over budgets and management decisions.
Supporters implored colleagues to support the bill because they said it creates a vehicle for communities to share resources and think more creatively about how to offer better educational programs for children. They said it would stabilize board and administrative leadership at a time when it is difficult for many districts to find board members, principals and superintendents.
Most of the comments on the floor were against the bill. Rep. Kevin "Coach" Christie, a member of the House Education Committee, patiently answered each question with direct answers.
Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, said the state needs to identify schools that need to improve educational opportunities, but "we do not need to realign every board in the state to do that." He worries that the consolidation effort will cause churn and take energy away from students. "We don't know what it will cost, and we don't know if there will be savings," Conquest said.
"There's a danger in passing this bill that we've created an environment in which making other changes is going to be more difficult going forward," Conquest said.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, said she wasn't in the Statehouse to put through legislation that is designed to make the lives of superintendents easier. "I'm here to represent my students and my taxpayers," she said.
"This is not what Vermonters have asked us to do. They want property tax relief and this doesn't do it," Scheuermann said.
Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, questioned whether the cost of consolidation will be borne by local school districts or the state. Rep. Martha Heath said the rough estimate is that the costs for district mergers will be offset by savings at the local level and at the state level the cost for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 will be a little over $2 million. This amount is appropriated in H.883.
Komline said her constituents haven't expressed an interest in giving up control of their budgets and local school districts. "They've asked for property tax reform," she said. Komline said the school consolidation proposal will pit towns against one another and will make the state "a house divided."
House Speaker Shap Smith kept the debate open and did not allow points of order to be taken. The debate eventually played out, and there was only one roll call vote.
The House will take up the bill for third reading on Wednesday. The Senate Education Committee must pass out its version of the bill tomorrow in order to meet the May 10 adjournment deadline.
The yeas (75): Ancel of Calais; Bissonnette of Winooski; Botzow of Pownal; Brennan of Colchester; Buxton of Tunbridge; Carr of Brandon; Christie of Hartford; Clarkson of Woodstock; Cole of Burlington; Condon of Colchester; Consejo of Sheldon; Copeland-Hanzas of Bradford; Corcoran of Bennington; Cupoli of Rutland City; Deen of Westminster; Dickinson of St. Albans Town; Donovan of Burlington; Ellis of Waterbury; Emmons of Springfield; Evans of Essex; Fagan of Rutland City; Fisher of Lincoln; Frank of Underhill; Gage of Rutland City; Head of South Burlington; Heath of Westford; Hubert of Milton; Jerman of Essex; Jewett of Ripton; Johnson of South Hero; Juskiewicz of Cambridge; Keenan of St. Albans City; Kitzmiller of Montpelier; Koch of Barre Town; Krowinski of Burlington; Kupersmith of South Burlington; Lanpher of Vergennes; Larocque of Barnet; Lenes of Shelburne; Lewis of Berlin; Lippert of Hinesburg; Macaig of Williston; Masland of Thetford; McCarthy of St. Albans City; McCormack of Burlington; McCullough of Williston; McFaun of Barre Town; Myers of Essex; Nuovo of Middlebury; O'Brien of Richmond; Peltz of Woodbury; Pugh of South Burlington; Rachelson of Burlington; Ralston of Middlebury; Ram of Burlington; Russell of Rutland City; Ryerson of Randolph; Savage of Swanton; Sharpe of Bristol; South of St. Johnsbury; Stevens of Waterbury; Stuart of Brattleboro; Sweaney of Windsor; Till of Jericho; Townsend of South Burlington; Turner of Milton; Vowinkel of Hartford; Waite-Simpson of Essex; Walz of Barre City; Webb of Shelburne; Weed of Enosburgh; Wilson of Manchester; Winters of Williamstown; Wizowaty of Burlington; Yantachka of Charlotte.
The nays (62):
Bartholomew of Hartland; Batchelor of Derby; Beyor of Highgate; Bouchard of Colchester; Branagan of Georgia; Browning of Arlington; Burke of Brattleboro; Campion of Bennington; Canfield of Fair Haven; Connor of Fairfield; Conquest of Newbury; Cross of Winooski; Dakin of Chester; Davis of Washington; Devereux of Mount Holly; Donahue of Northfield; Fay of St. Johnsbury; Feltus of Lyndon; French of Randolph; Gallivan of Chittenden; Goodwin of Weston; Grad of Moretown; Greshin of Warren; Haas of Rochester; Hebert of Vernon; Helm of Fair Haven; Higley of Lowell; Hooper of Montpelier; Huntley of Cavendish; Johnson of Canaan; Kilmartin of Newport City; Komline of Dorset; Krebs of South Hero; Lawrence of Lyndon; Malcolm of Pawlet; Manwaring of Wilmington; Marcotte of Coventry; Martin of Springfield; Martin of Wolcott; Michelsen of Hardwick; Miller of Shaftsbury; Mook of Bennington; Moran of Wardsboro; Morrissey of Bennington; Pearce of Richford; Pearson of Burlington; Poirier of Barre City; Potter of Clarendon; Quimby of Concord; Scheuermann of Stowe; Shaw of Pittsford; Smith of New Haven; Spengler of Colchester; Stevens of Shoreham; Strong of Albany; Terenzini of Rutland Town; Toleno of Brattleboro; Toll of Danville; Van Wyck of Ferrisburgh; Woodward of Johnson; Wright of Burlington; Young of Glover.
Burditt of West Rutland; Donaghy of Poultney; Hoyt of Norwich; Klein of East Montpelier; Marek of Newfane; Mitchell of Fairfax; Mrowicki of Putney; O'Sullivan of Burlington; Partridge of Windham; Shaw of Derby; Trieber of Rockingham; Zagar of Barnard.