Public reaction to school board consolidation mixed

MONTPELIER -- Vermonters care deeply about local schools and that passion was on display Tuesday night, as dozens of people testified in the House Chamber on a proposal that would have a profound effect on their relationship to local schools.

Parents, superintendents, teachers, district business managers and school boards spoke about why they support or oppose the Legislature's long-range plan to eliminate some 282 local school board districts and replace the current system with 30 to 60 districts statewide.

Those who testified against the proposal - largely citizens, school board members and parents - said that eliminating local school boards would undermine local control. Boards with more students and fewer school board members would put power in the hands of the representatives from larger towns, they said. And in the end, they said such a dramatic change in school governance would lead to higher education costs and less than desirable student outcomes. Local school boards, they said, know best how to control costs and meet the needs of students. Many also worried about the impact of district consolidation on private schools. (Stalwarts from The Sharon Academy were well represented among the assembled.)

An equal number of professional educators, business managers, school members and members of the public argued for consolidation of school boards. They argued that the current system destabilizes efforts to create standards for best teaching practices and unified curriculum and also makes it difficult for districts to share resources such as accounting services and back office support. Because the districts are a "loose confederation," a disruption in leadership - such as the departure of key school board member or administrator- can destroy an overarching vision for a supervisory union's educational goals.

Lawmakers say changing the way schools are governed will improve curriculum development, teaching practices, access to data and ultimately lead to better educational outcomes for students.

A secondary result, they say, could be potential cost savings and more stability for taxpayers through better management of financial resources.

Milan Miller from Williamstown told lawmakers that the proposal is "one size fits all and one size doesn't fit all." He said when school districts cease to exist local control will disappear and the center of the community will be destroyed.

Merging school districts will disenfranchise small towns, Dorothy Naylor said. The real problem, in her view, is that schools have become top heavy with administration and salaries for principals and superintendents have grown faster than those for teachers and paraprofessionals.

If the Legislature adopts the proposal to consolidate school districts, Naylor said: "I'm afraid we will have cookie cutter schools."

Heidi Spear, an outspoken opponent of consolidation, told lawmakers she doesn't see how the proposal will save money or more efficiently deliver services to children. The plan she said is "tantamount to another unfunded mandate." Rolling up local school teacher contracts into negotiations for multiple schools will lead to higher salaries, she said. A proposed cap on tax increases of 5 percent for schools that choose to consolidate boards is representative of "what we have too much of," she said it shifts costs to others and is "irresponsible."

Bob Mason, head of the Vermont Association of School Business Officials, said his organization produced a white paper in 2010 that showed district consolidation could save taxpayers about $30 million a year and have a significant impact on student outcomes.

"The organizational structure is fractured," Mason said. "Supervisory unions are loosely held confederations of schools, and at any point in time a building administrator or board member could choose to go on their own. Solid initiatives get tabled as a result. If we are truly interested in changing costs, we must change the governance structure in order to do so."

The system is dysfunctional, according to Nancy Dyke, a longtime educator. Curriculum is not aligned across elementary school districts within one supervisory union, for example, and so when students go on to junior high they have are at different academic levels.

"Another problem is best practices," Dyke said. "Accountability is weak and people aren't sure where buck stops and that's affecting kids. Also we're having trouble closing the gap (between low-income and middle class student performance) in spite of a homogenous population, and in spite of low student teacher ratios."

Dyke said the supervisory district structure makes it difficult for district board members to come together with solutions to these problems.

Kevin Campbell, a school board member from Underhill, told lawmakers his district is at a point where "we can't provide a quality education that's affordable for residents and they are looking at every option right now, including school mergers.

The bill is being drafted by the House Education Committee; lawmakers hope to finalize the legislation (which is a committee bill and at this point does not have a number) after a public hearing on Tuesday.

Committee members have not yet settled on key components of the legislation, including the timeline, the criteria for districts and how the Legislature would be involved in the process.

The deadline for the "education governance" plan is July 1, 2020. The timeline is broken down into the development of criteria for the formation of districts (spring 2014); and the formation of a work group that would assess the legal and fiscal impact of smaller districts on school choice, tax rates, representation, collection of data and accounting (summer/fall 2014).

Reports on the fiscal and legal impacts of school board consolidation would be due to the General Assembly by January 2015.

School boards would be encouraged to voluntarily realign districts between 2014 and 2017. The minimum district size is four K-12 school districts with at least 1,250 students. A design team would work with local officials in districts that have not found a way to realign voluntarily.

They are expected to vote on the bill in the next few days.

Political pressure is building for changes to the public school system and the statewide property tax structure.

The statewide property tax increased 5 cents per $100 of assessed property value last year and is slated to increase by 4 cents for residential property owners this year.

Thirty-five municipalities out of 246 towns rejected school budgets on Town Meeting Day, according to the Vermont School Boards Association.


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