No savings from school consolidation
Act 153, which encouraged but did not mandate school district consolidation, was pushed by Governor Shumlin and passed by the legislature in 2009 (taking effect in 2010). It was promoted as a way to save large amounts of money, create efficiency and improve our educational system "for the children." Act 46, which goes further by mandating consolidation and is currently being implemented in our towns, was sold with the same bold claims.
Here's some experience from my area that might shed some light on what we can actually expect to result from consolidated school districts.
In 2011, Windsor Southwest Supervisory Union (WSWSU) had an average of 1000 students in four schools and a total budget of $1,649,536. This was just prior to the act 153 state mandates that took Financial Services, Special Education and Transportation away from locally controlled school boards and put them under the purview of the Supervisory Unions (S.U.).
In 2012-13, WSWSU and Rutland Windsor South S.U. came together to form a new Two Rivers Supervisory Union (TRSU) through the ACT 153 merger law. Today, TRSU has a total enrollment of about that same 1000 students, though now encompassing six schools: Green Mountain Union HS, Cavendish Town Elementary School, CAES, Mount Holly, Black River HS and Ludlow Elementary School. (During the merger, WSWSU's Flood Brook Union School left to join another new Regional Educational District connected to Manchester, Vermont.)
Let's compare budgets. Remember the 2011 budget for WSWSU's 1000 kids was $1,649,536. Today, the total budget for FY 2016 at TRSU — the same number of kids, albeit for two more physical schools — is $5,352,093.
Now, the massive increase in the S.U. budget can be partially explained by the cost shift of services from locally controlled schools to the Supervisory Unions. But, given that shift, you would think there would be a corresponding decrease in the budgets of the local schools. This is not the case. The budgets of these schools are either staying close to level funded or they are increasing by a few percentage points.
Savings? No. Not at all.
An examination of fiscal services (accounts payable, accounts receivable and payroll) offers one example of the difficulty of finding efficiency in centralizing and consolidating school services.
In 2011, Cavendish Town Elementary School was the last hold out, doing their financial services "in house" rather than outsourcing to the S.U. The cost per student for financial services was $224.06. CTES was using a local control, decentralized, distributive power model of doing business. But today, TRSU is spending $431.72 per student – nearly double what it was when done locally. This is the new progressive, consolidated, centralized power model of doing business!
One could easily jump the gun and blame school board members and administrators for the absence of cost savings, but not so fast! School boards are told quite clearly, by highly-paid, "expert" consultants that they must comply with the edicts coming out of the Vermont Agency of Education. These edicts have the full force of law as enacted by the legislature and signed by Governor Shumlin, and they cost money.
So what we are seeing is a loss of local control regarding how to spend money efficiently as it is shifted away from local boards to the S.U. – another level of expanded bureaucracy — while spending is being driven higher by an even further removed central authority in Montpelier passing along mandates. It's the worst of all worlds.
Hold tightly to your wallets Vermonters. The tax man is coming.
— Stu Lindberg Cavendish