Finding the right size for Vermont’s school governance system
By Daniel M. French
Commentary | March 16,2014
I consider myself a reasonable person, so I knew at some point I would be weighing in on the proposed bill on school district governance reform in Vermont. I wasn’t exactly sure when I would do so, but I have been waiting for a sign that the time was right. I thought I was close when I observed progressive educator Bill Mathis and libertarian John McClaughry to be on the same side of the issue.
The piece in the Rutland Herald entitled, “Attack on Democracy” almost had me there, but it was Marty Strange’s, “The Reality of Consolidation” which pushed me over the edge. Mr. Strange compares Vermont to West Virginia, Nebraska, Maine and Arkansas. Really? Nothing which has occurred in these other states is on the same scale to what is being proposed in Vermont.
From a national perspective, what is being considered in Vermont could be characterized as taking micro school districts and forming them into small districts. I often correspond with other superintendents from around the country on school district governance. The conversation usually goes something like this:
Other superintendent: “Dan, school district consolidation is bad.”
Me: “My school system of 2,200 students is governed by 12 boards and 54 school board members, and my smallest district has 29 students and does not operate a school.”
Other superintendent: “Oh. That’s crazy. You guys have a problem.”
Mr. Strange cites research on West Virginia. “In West Virginia, thousands of kids spend over two hours on the bus each school day.” In Vermont, this would mean the kids in Canaan would have to be bused back and forth to Lyndonville every day. The frost heaves alone would make this impractical.
On the other hand, school district consolidation might actually improve the efficiency of our school transportation since many of our students spend hours on half-empty school buses each day driving through other districts and past other schools in order to attend a school in their own district. Mr. Strange also cites the economic impact of district consolidation. “West Virginia spends more of its education dollar on transportation than any other state.”
If school district consolidation is related to cost, Mr. Strange should have mentioned West Virginia spends about $5,000 less per student than Vermont. Actually, all of the states mentioned by Mr. Strange spend considerably less per student than Vermont.
I admire Mr. Strange’s work and the work of the Rural School and Community Trust, but I question whether or not he read the outline of the proposed school governance bill before writing his op-ed. The proposed bill is not about school bus transportation, closing small schools, the end of school choice or even an “Attack on Democracy.”
The bill is aimed at addressing a long standing issue in Vermont: the overly complex structure of our public education delivery system. Mr. Strange is correct in that research should be used to guide public policy since there are valuable lessons to be learned from other states, but in the end, we need to find a Vermont solution to a Vermont problem. And yes, I think we have a school district governance problem in Vermont — denial is not a river in Egypt.
The problem in Vermont is twofold: 1) unequal educational opportunity for Vermont students, and 2) our high costs. School district governance has to be part of the solution, but I think it is more about “rightsizing” our governance structure rather than “consolidating” it.
Looking for regional solutions — what makes sense in Essex County is not necessarily going to make sense in Chittenden County. The proposed bill includes a “Design Team” to take into account these regional variations. More importantly, the bill would give locals the opportunity to articulate a governance solution themselves albeit with the understanding that the goal is a Pre-K to grade 12 cohesive system and that the state will act to form up newly configured districts if a local solution is not achieved in a given time frame;
Ensuring the new districts (larger yes, but “mega” no) have a better chance to achieve greater efficiency. We know from research (Baker) that single districts between about 1,200 and 4,000 students are the most efficient;
Maintaining local input commensurate to the number of students in the district. Vermont’s ratio of school boards to students (1 board per 282 students) is the lowest in the country and unfortunately correlates well to our very high spending per student; and
Creating integrated systems of school improvement by modernizing curriculum development, professional development, and assessment systems to better leverage the networked expertise of our teachers across school district boundaries so student learning opportunities are not limited by a student’s town of residence or the walls of a single school building.
I applaud the House Education Committee and our other political leaders for taking on the issue of school district governance reform. I think the conversation around this issue is an important one and hopefully not coming too late. Vermonters should engage in the conversation objectively and be prepared to shape the process so a Vermont solution can be found to a Vermont problem.
Daniel M. French is the superintendent of schools for the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union in Sunderland. The opinions expressed here are his own.