House bill H.833, which was recently passed unanimously out of the House Education Committee, would transform school governance by reducing the number of school districts from 282 to about 45 and eliminating local elected school boards and replacing them with appointed advisory councils.
Dover School Board member Laura Sibilia, who has been monitoring developments through Dover’s education lobbyist, says there is an “astonishing” level of support for change in education this year. “I’m astonished at the support there has been for these bills during an election year,” she said. “The fact that there’s so much consensus around trying to do something big is really surprising.”
Rep. Peter Peltz, of Woodbury, vice chair of the House Education Committee, says the bill is aimed at improving educational opportunity for Vermont students. “Our primary goal is making sure all kids have access to an equal education,” Peltz said. “We heard compelling testimony that, at the district level in supervisory unions, there is a disparity in what students are offered and the opportunities they have for learning.”
Peltz calls the legislation one of the most significant changes since the establishment of union school districts in the 1960s. “In the eight years I’ve been in the Legislature, this is the first time we’ve looked at the education delivery system. We’ve always looked at what we can cut. (Cutting funding) is going to have a more adverse impact on the quality of schools, and I’m very concerned about that.”
Peltz says that, under the bill, current supervisory unions would become more like supervisory districts, with one board overseeing multiple schools. The bill calls for a board with a representative from each municipality. Local elected school boards would be eliminated, replaced with an appointed advisory council.
Peltz, who is married to an educator and has served as a school board member in his town, says he understands Vermonters’ concerns about the loss of local control that would result from the loss of elected school board members. But Rep. David Sharpe, ranking member of the House Ways and Means committee, says the concern doesn’t jibe with previous rhetoric on the subject of control. “For at least the last decade we’ve heard that there is no local control,” he says. “Now people are concerned we’re taking away something they said they don’t have.”
Rather than combining all districts within current supervisory unions to create the new, multitown school districts, the legislation would give school districts the opportunity to voluntarily merge, with voter approval, over the first two years after the bill becomes law. After that deadline, the state would merge remaining districts.
“We didn’t want to be too prescriptive,” Peltz says. “We left two years of voluntary mergers to make sure we have functioning units. After two years, a state design team would work with towns that didn’t figure it out. The law wouldn’t be fully enacted until 2020.
Some smaller schools would likely be closed as the single, larger district seeks more efficiency, but Peltz says small schools in small towns have some protection from being “overpowered” by neighboring communities in the district. “A school could only be closed with a unanimous vote of the board.”
But some critics of the bill, like state board of education member William Mathis and Twin Valley School Board member Phil Taylor, say the Legislature’s governance bill is a solution without a problem. In a recent op-ed on VTDigger.com criticizing the bill, Mathis, the only state board of education member who declined to support the bill, said “Legislators performed their dance and preached their revelation: consolidate central office administration and dramatically reduce publicly elected school boards. What is missing from this vision is a cogent link of this solution to a problem.”
Taylor says legislators haven’t taken the time to thoroughly investigate and understand the root causes of rising education costs or disparities in educational opportunity in Vermont. “They’re trying to come up with a uniform solution to a problem that doesn’t have uniform answers,” Taylor says. “Consolidation has been great for us, but it may not be the solution for every school.”
Sibilia says she has mixed feelings about the bill. She says Dover and Dover students could be at risk under the bill, but it could resolve some of the problems created by Act 60 – particularly the impact that budget decisions in one town have on all Vermonters.
“We have this sense that our spending decisions are ours,” Sibilia says. “But every school budget in the state of Vermont impacts every property tax payer in the state of Vermont. Right now, there’s nobody managing that and nobody manning the levers. I’m not in favor of this bill, but I’m in favor of action that acknowledges that all of the resources are collected at a state level, but there’s no central place where decisions are made.”
But the bill may not be passed before the end of the biennium, in which case new legislation would have to be introduced at the beginning of the next session. Peltz says the bill has many hurdles to overcome, quickly, if it is to be passed before the end of the current session. “It will be a tough fight to get it through both chambers and get it signed this year, considering the timeline and concerns some people have.”
The full text of the bill is available at www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/2014/bills/Intro/H-883.pdf.