Bill no laughing matter
Mar 27, 2014 | 3966 views | 0 0 comments | 288 288 recommendations | email to a friend | print
While a story in our annual April Fool’s edition lampoons school funding and consolidation in Vermont, in reality there are very serious changes being contemplated in the Vermont Legislature this spring.

There are plans in a House committee to drastically reduce the number of supervisory unions in the state. This idea has been floating around for a little while, but appears to have really gained momentum after 35 school budgets around the state were voted down at Town Meeting earlier this month. Politicians took this as a mandate that Vermonters were fed up with the high costs associated with educating our youth, especially in the ever-rising statewide property tax rate.

So the House Committee on Eduction sprang into action, and gave the full Legislature a bill that plans to reduce the number of school supervisory unions. While this may lead to some efficiencies, the overall goal of reducing costs seems to be lost. Even members of the committee say little, if any, cost savings will be realized by the bill.

A Vtdigger.org article published this past Monday, titled “Historic changes to structure of Vermont school system approved by House panel,” opens with the following:

“A Vermont House panel has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would create sweeping changes to the way Vermont schools are governed. H.883 would reduce the total number of municipal school districts from 282 to 45 by 2020.

“If the legislation is successful (it has to pass the House and the Senate), it will be the first time the state’s home rule structure has changed since 1892 when the state went from 2,500 local school boards to a total of 300.”

While there is no doubt, based on the above numbers, that the reduction would be historic, the problem is, would the action proposed be effective?

That question, unfortunately, is the one that often goes unanswered when bills are passed into law. That lack of critical review is seen time and time again, both in Vermont and across the country.

There is no doubt that the school district reduction bill would benefit some. One local school official said that the bill would certainly benefit districts with weak leadership, by forcing consolidation into a larger regional board. That could be a positive for communities that have difficulty finding residents to run for school board. But strong, active school districts could be penalized, and local control of schools will undoubtedly be eroded as school districts are merged and expanded. Invariably, the town with the largest population will ultimately gain the most power on a regional board. That, as much as anything, scares many small district school board members and officials.

We question how much analysis of consolidation has been done. There are numerous states that have gone through a similar process, some 30 or 40 years ago. We wonder if the House committee has any data from those states showing what the outcomes of consolidation have been. There must be plenty of information available that can show the benefits, and pitfalls, of school and district consolidation.

We also question the “one size fits all” approach to schools. What works for one district may not for another, due to any number of factors.

Also, the House committee appears to have ignored some fairly important findings in a study done just two years ago for the Legislature, commonly known as the Picus report. One of the findings in that report said that strong leadership, not district size, was a better indicator of school performance.

Interestingly, the school consolidation bill appears to be facing a struggle to pass the full Legislature, especially in the Senate. Sen. Dick McCormack, in that same article, expressed doubts about the bill:

“Theoretically, I could be convinced, but I have big questions,” McCormack said. “Why are we doing this at all? This initiative is subject to mission creep.”

McCormack says the legislation appears to be a response to taxpayer dissatisfaction, and yet lawmakers say it has nothing to do with money and it’s about improving education quality. He says he doesn’t know which problem the legislation is meant to address, nor is he sure whether there is public support.

“Is it just rearranging the furniture, or does the public really want it?”

McCormack’s words have a lot of resonance to them.

We have seen very little evidence that Vermonters want larger school districts and less say in the running of them. What they do want, and are not getting with this legislation, is a reliable, predictable method of funding schools that is understandable and cost effective.

It’s time to stop moving chairs and face the real issues of education funding, something many legislators still seem unwilling to consider.
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