Educators, politicians track progress of consolidation bill

MANCHESTER - The halls of the state house in Montpelier and kitchen tables around the Vermont are ringing with the same debate: school district consolidation. As of press time, the House approved H.883, the bill concerning school district consolidation on its first vote. If this bill were to make it through the House and Senate before the May 10 adjournment deadline, what would it mean for the schools in our area? Would Manchester see a reconfiguration of the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union?

Representative Jeff Wilson, who currently represents Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sand gate, said in an email that he is an enthusiastic supporter of the bill. What it does, in a nutshell, is lays out a multi-year planning process, allows for public input and engagement and includes voluntary and final design phases. Wilson wrote that the bill seeks to reduce Vermont school districts from 275 to somewhere around 45 to 55.

"To me, the school governance bill is about rightsizing our educational governance system to fit the facts on the ground," he said in an email. "We have seen a precipitous drop in Vermont's K-12 student population over the year - down 18.4 percent since 2000. It's time to put in motion the realignment process set forth in H.883, so that we can move forward with matching these lower student numbers with a more efficient, effective governance and decision making framework."

Dan French, superintendent of the BRSU, said that Vermont does have an education spending problem, related to inefficiencies due to governance. He said that the board members currently serving in his district are well equipped to deal with consolidation, should it happen and have also looked at eliminating administrative inefficiencies at the BRSU level.

Local control has been a hot topic surrounding this discussion and many are afraid that locals will lose the control they now have. Katy McNabb, Manchester Elementary Middle School board chair said this bill makes her nervous.

"I'm nervous it's going to dilute Manchester's voice," she said. "Our district has a very strong voice in a smaller group."

She is also concerned about regionalism, pointing out that Southern Vermont is different than more Northern portions of the state, as well as places like Brattleboro being different than Manchester.

French also acknowledged the regional differences Vermont and said the state government is also taking that into consideration.

"We have a topography...every little valley is its own eco system. We've found that time and time again that locals can - when empowered - come up with a better solution than at the state level," he said. "What I've seen at this drafty where the state gets more forceful that no one is left behind, no one is in isolation like a donut hole...districts who are surrounding an entity, won't leave the center out...the state can't afford to have that kind of thing going on."

Representative Cynthia Browning, also representing Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate, is not a fan of the bill, voted against it Tuesday.

She said that this bill represents a loss of local control, especially for places with small schools that may be absorbed into larger, already formed districts.

"There are certain criteria [in the bill] for the districts," she said. "So when you look at Bennington County, that would make you think, what would happen to Arlington and Sunderland?"

She is also worried about the uncertainty surrounded the bill, for example, there is voluntary merging of districts in the beginning and as time progresses, if distracts have not merged, the state will force them.

The issue of the Arlington and Sunderland districts is the perfect example of a smaller district in between two larger ones. French said that both the Bennington School District and the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union would have to consider Arlington and Sunderland in their discussions. Arlington school board chair Dawn Hoyt said in her community, there are people on both sides of the issue. She grew up in the area and moved back with her family due in part to the tight knit community and small schools. Declining school populations is one reason that district consolidation has been discussed. However, that's not the case in Arlington.

"We have seen an increase over the last two years of 40 to 50 students," Hoyt said.

Some of the other schools that may leave or join depending on the vote in Montpelier, French said, are on the edges of the BRSU. For example, The Mountain Towns RED, Danby, and others.

Wendell Coleman is the vice chairman of the Mountain Towns RED and was in the capital for the floor debate of bill. He said the problem with the debate around the bill has been is that its been compared to creating a unified district, when it is in fact not the same at all.

"When a union school district is formed, it usually means closing some local school and creating one localized school," he said. "But in the end, you get a board with representatives for all the towns."

In the case of school district consolidation, the towns will not all be represented on the boards and the budgets for the school will be created for the entire district, not school by school. To Coleman, this will create a problem.

"With one budget, the interest, the passion is going to get very diverted," he said. "Is that a positive thing?"

He said that the behavior of these new, consolidated school district boards is currently unknown. In his own experience on the Mountain Towns RED board, members do not necessarily vote along town lines.

"If this [consolidation] goes forward, into a brave new world, I don't think anyone knows how it will behave," he said.


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