Half a loaf that's worth having

Sometimes half a loaf is better than none at all.

The proposed bill on reforming and overhauling the structure of Vermont's educational governance system - known as H.883 - was approved by the House Education Committee last week and will soon come up for approval by the members of both branches of the state Legislature. Passage in something closely resembling its current form is far from certain, but not to pass something like it would be a grievous error and setback. We're lining up in support of the bill and encourage our local lawmakers to vote in favor of it when the time comes.

There's something for everyone not to love about this bill, which may well be a key to its passage. In our case, the disappointment stems from the fact that it does little, on its face, to ease the overall costs of education and therefore property taxes. The legislature could always increase its contribution from the General Fund, which is fueled by a variety of taxes such as those on income and sales. Those monies are of course needed for the wide array of other government services we have come to expect and rely upon, so it's a bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Education funding depends on property taxes. Last week another House panel approved a 4 cent increase on the residential tax rate and a 7.5 cent increase on the non-residential and commercial tax rates. Already far too high for the economy of Vermont to bear, further property tax increases should be too politically toxic and out-of-bounds for lawmakers to consider. But they may have too, unless something fairly radical is done to control costs of providing the educational services Vermont's school-age population needs to have in a world that more and more will reward knowledge-based industries and workers.

That's where H.883 falls short, by not forcing a more immediate reckoning with the financial side of things. But the bill does make several important steps towards rationalizing school governance for the 21st century, and will come amid howls of protest from those who see loss of "local control" as sacrilege. The bill would make some changes that are little short of revolutionary and mark the first real change in the way Vermont has organized itself, educationally speaking, since the 1890s. If passed in more or less its present form, the bill would replace the state's 60 or so supervisory unions with expanded regional school districts, each with one school board. Each one of these regional districts would have to have at least 1,200 students and comprise at least four towns, or existing school districts.

On its face, that doesn't seem like a big deal, but when you consider that many of Vermont's existing supervisory unions have fewer than 800 students this will be a big change. And many folks won't like it.

Town school district boards will lose direct control over their programs and budgets. Independent schools may be feeling twitchy about where they fit in.

As we've said on this page before, it's a lot easier to drive a few miles or less to your local school to attend a school board meeting and voice an opinion, rather than driving a greater distance and talking with people you may not know well. But go to any school board meeting anywhere this coming week, and the chances are excellent the number of citizens in the audience can be counted on the fingers of one hand, maybe two. Only in rare cases where a controversial decision is being taken will the members of the audience outnumber the school directors and educators on the other side of the table.

Combine that with the frequent lack of competitive races for school board slots, and the churn of the ranks of school principals and superintendents - there will be 15 superintendent vacancies and a 30 percent turnover rate among school principals this year, according to Vermont Digger, a non-profit newsgathering resource - and you have some compelling reasons why it's time for a change. Local control is important, but it's only one part of the equation. The others are costs and educational opportunity.

We would not be in favor of a greater regionalization of education if there were compelling evidence to suggest that somehow or another, educational achievement by Vermont's youngsters would be in jeopardy. But such evidence is in scant supply. Other states have long moved on to more regionalized approaches, and their students have coped. When it comes to educational excellence, it's all about the quality of the teaching, and the amount of support and encouragement on the home front.

Closing school buildings is not what H.883 contemplates. Cost savings are expected to derive from needing fewer administrative personnel and other collaborations. We're skeptical this will result in much of a decline in the aggregate amounts of money spent statewide on education, but a journey of a thousand steps starts with one, a wise person once allegedly said, so we'll see this as a laudatory first step on a longer road.

Lawmakers who come out in support of this overhaul will expose themselves to potshots from those who, for understandable reasons, cherish the idea of local control. But maybe what we're talking about here is expanding or modifying the definition of local control. Even under this new format, should it be adopted and eventually phased in by July, 2020 (after a series of other deadlines are met), Vermont residents will have a lot more local control than residents almost anywhere else. That's if they choose to exercise it and go to school board meetings and vote on school budgets, which a distinct minority of citizens do at present.

H.883 is a good first step on a longer road. The next step has to be a serious look at cost reduction.


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