First things first

As might have been expected in an election year, this session of the state legislature has been a bit on the quiet side. There have been few dramatic clashes over large and momentous issues like we have seen in some of the recent years. No Vermont Yankee debate. No healthcare or insurance debate, really. No "Death with Dignity"; no same sex marriage. With all the lawmakers who want to return for another two years in Montpelier facing re-election, that may be the way they prefer it. And there's certainly enough to do just keeping the ship of state and the state's economy moving, so focusing on the small stuff may not be a bad idea.

There is one exception to that rule, however; one we've commented on several times already but will again, because it would reconfigure the status quo. We refer to the bill which recently passed the House of Representatives and is now over on the Senate side that would slash the number of school districts in the state from roughly 270 to possibly 45 or so over a six-year period.

Many lawmakers, to say nothing of state residents, are unimpressed with that idea, fearing it will undermine communities when their local schools are governed not by a locally elected school board, but from a more remote regional board. Consolidating school districts, and eliminating a few supervisory union jobs, won't save much money, or address the real underlying problem confronting education in Vermont - its cost, and its impact on property tax rates. The base property tax rate rose 5 cents last year, will go up at least 4 cents this year, possibly more, and could well rise by comparable numbers next year. Everyone can probably agree those kinds of jumps are unsustainable, to put it mildly.

We agree with the critic's of the proposed legislation that if enacted before the legislature adjourns - and that's a long shot, given that the state Senate will have only a week to deliberate on a complex bill fraught with political liabilities - it won't save much money or address the fundamental financing questions. But it's a start, and we'll hope the Senate, against all likelihood, will find a way to fast track the bill through for an affirming vote.

Overhauling Acts 60 and 68 to create a newer system of financing education is too complex to do in one step. It's defied all the efforts that have been tried so far. Bringing school governance into the 20th century - never mind the 21st - is one step that will cut some costs and pave the way, we think, for the real restructuring of how we pay for education, which lies ahead and is not just necessary, but imperative, if the state is to avoid major fiscal problems not so far down the road.

Doing nothing, we think, is not an option. Unfortunately, to do anything, it's going to have to be a "top down' solution driven by Montpelier. No one likes that idea, but if left to the localities, nothing will happen. They tried that approach with the bill that authorized Regional Education Districts, and it produced just one - the Mountain Towns RED in our neck of the woods.

We all want the best possible education we can afford for Vermont's students. But we've developed a convoluted system where we have the worst of both worlds - a myriad of school districts (there are more school districts than towns), the smallest student-teacher ratio, and the smallest student- school director ratio in the nation. It's expensive, redundant, and screams for a new approach. With Acts 60-68, we've also handed the real power about running schools over to the state anyway. We've just enjoyed pretending that's not really so.

It's time to bring some measure of governance sanity to Vermont's schools, and pave the way for a fundamental financing overhaul. If Vermonters are worried about their property tax bills, the place to start addressing those concerns is with governance reform. Only those who think their property tax bill is just about right should oppose the consolidation bill.


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