Vt House committee advances school district overhauls
By JOSH O’GORMAN
Vermont Press Bureau | March 22,2014
MONTPELIER — Lawmakers on Friday took the first step toward the first large-scale reorganization of Vermont school districts in more than a century.
With a unanimous vote Friday afternoon, the House Committee on Education approved a bill that would, by the year 2020, abolish supervisory unions and create a series of what the bill calls expanded districts that offer pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade education.
“I am feeling very proud of the work my committee did,” said the chairwoman, Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan, a Democrat from Burlington. “It was a really difficult decision to change the historical delivery system of education in Vermont. I think it’s a good direction to go.”
While it’s undergone a number of tweaks over the years, the way the state has organized and governed schools has remained essentially unchanged since the end of the 19th century. Nearly every town operates its own school district with its own independent board, including towns and districts that do not have their own school.
With this bill, districts would reorganize, or merge, into expanded districts that must meet a number of requirements, such as having at least 1,250 students or having been created from the realignment of at least four districts.
The plan also calls for the abolition of individual boards for each school and creation of a single districtwide board with representation from each city or town. The expanded district would also have a single budget to be voted on by residents within the district, as well as a single districtwide tax rate.
Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, has sat in on much of the committee’s deliberations on the bill, which began in February and included all-day marathon sessions during the past week.
“I think it’s a good bill, reflective of a lot of hard work on the part of the House Education Committee,” Francis said after the vote Friday.
“I think that they have successfully, in this bill as introduced, balanced the need for a more nimble delivery system for public education in Vermont with plenty of local voice and local participation,” he said.
Under the bill, school districts will have until July 1, 2017, to address such issues as proportional representation on the districtwide board and policies for how a school can be closed. The plan must be submitted to the State Board of Education and ultimately must be approved by residents within the expanded district.
Recognizing that not every parent or property owner in every town will want to realign their districts, the bill also calls for the creation of a team of education experts — appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin, House Speaker Shap Smith and the Senate’s Committee on Committees — to come up with a statewide plan to realign districts that do not do so voluntarily.
Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, expressed reservations about the bill. The Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, which is in her district, recently looked at voluntarily merging with nearby supervisory unions and after a study elected not to do so.
“The final draft of the bill defers many of the questions that are important to many school districts for a decision later on,” Browning said.
“What is the voting representation? Who can vote to close a school? How are the budgets determined?” she asked. “Those are issues that are very important to people in my district, and this bill lays out a process of consolidation of all of our districts into these regional unified school districts, and it doesn’t answer the questions for what happens on those points.”
The bill contains language that calls for money for increased staffing for the Agency of Education to offer assistance to districts, as well as money for the districts themselves to defray costs for such things as legal expenses and the merging of different information technology.
The money aspects of the bill will call for reviews by the House Appropriations, and Ways and Means committees.
The draft bill can be found online at goo.gl/BRYZRv.