Schools overhaul will hit on sensitive issues
By JOSH O’GORMAN
Vermont Press Bureau | March 23,2014
MONTPELIER — An ambitious proposal to reorganize public schools in the state would touch upon classically “third-rail” issues ranging from school choice to school closure, and ultimately, local control.
House bill 883, passed Friday afternoon by a unanimous vote of the House Committee on Education, seeks to consolidate the state’s 273 school districts into a series of what the bill calls “expanded districts” which would offer education from pre-kindergarten through grade 12 and access to one of the state’s 17 technical centers.
In doing so, the plan would abolish supervisory unions and create a single governing board for each district. It would also restructure the way schools are governed for the first time in more than a century.
Believe it or not, there was a time when Vermont’s governance system was even more localized. Prior to 1892, the state had more than 2,500 school districts. However, that year, the Legislature passed a law requiring each town to operate its own district, reducing the number to approximately 300, a similar amount to the number of districts today.
After more than 100 years of business as usual, one might ask, why change now?
Property owners who voted down their school budgets en masse at town meeting earlier this month and are looking for a plan that would reduce their tax bills might be disappointed, because the plan does not put finances front and center.
“In some cases, a merger of governance structures may yield savings that local voters can use to invest in other priorities, or in relief for tax payers,” the bill states.
Instead of addressing taxpayer concerns, the bill is intended to level the playing field for students.
“The current education finance system … has considerably reducedthe variability in what our communities spend on education,” the bill states. “Nevertheless, across the State, our communities are characterized by sharp inequities in the breadth, depth, and quality of opportunities to learn that they provide.”
In theory, an expanded district would not just centralize administrative tasks from accounting to transportation, but would also allow schools within the district to share resources and curriculum planning, and provide for smoother transitions for students as they move from elementary to secondary school.
The bill has a lot of moving parts, as well as components that would encourage districts to merge voluntarily and compel merger if necessary.
Districts would have until July 1, 2017, to create plans for how they would merge and create an expanded district, which would have to meet numerous criteria, such as having at least 1,250 students or being the result of the merger of at least four districts.
For some districts, especially those already within the same supervisory union, that planning could go smoothly. For those districts that come together for the first time, the planning process could be more daunting.
The bill calls for the creation of a legal and fiscal research group, whose task would be to advise the districts as they come up with their plans, which would need to be approved by the state Board of Education.
Besides looking at the criteria for expanded districts, the state Board of Education would look at the plans in relation to each other to ensure existing districts are not “orphaned’ from the expanded districts.
Ultimately, the plan would be approved by residents within the member towns of each proposed expanded district.
In addition to the legal and fiscal research group, the bill also creates a “design team,” composed of education experts appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin, House Speaker Shap Smith and the Senate Committee on Committees.
The design team has two tasks: First it oversees the voluntary alignment of the districts; second, it would come up with a statewide plan for those districts that do not align voluntarily by the 2017 deadline.
Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan, a Democrat from Burlington and chairwoman of the House Committee on Education, said she hopes school districts will align voluntarily so the state doesn’t have to do it for them.
“It is my hope, that, when that date comes around, that there will have been 99.9 percent participation … and there won’t be any arbitrary decisions (made by the state),” Donovan said.
“Having said that, if there are, I would hope, if at all possible, that these decisions would be made with respect to what that school district and community had had before.”
School choice, school closing
The bill could mean more school choice, Donovan said.
“Where I’m from in Chittenden County, we don’t have a lot of school choice,” Donovan said. “But under this bill, I could see where we could have expanded districts where the geography lines are erased between communities and there would be choice within that district.”
And for the towns in Vermont that do not operate a high school — or in some cases, an elementary school — the bill, in some ways, protects school choice. Under the bill, a town that currently offers school choice would not have that right limited by the statewide plan.
For districts that come together voluntarily, the preservation of school choice would be a matter of negotiation with surrounding districts.
“I would hope that towns with school choice would merge with other towns to keep the choice they have now,” Donovan said.
The bill also has the potential to change the procedures for school closure. Currently, the decision to close a school rests with the voters within the district, which typically means each small town has the ability to decide if they wish to keep their school open. With this bill, the idea of a district is expanded beyond town lines.
With voluntary realignment, districts must come up with a plan for how they wish to handle school closure. They must also come up with plans for how they want to create a single, district-wide board with representation from multiple towns. In short, representatives from one town will have a say in whether a school in another town will close or remain open.
And after 2017, those details will be handed by the design team.
Donovan said the plan, rather than threatening small schools, could actually preserve them.
“We see these expanded school districts as being protective of small schools. I think small schools, on their own, as we continue to have declining students and increasing costs, may have to make that choice themselves. We can’t sustain this any more,” Donovan said.
“I think with the larger school districts, they will have a larger tax base and will be able to do creative things and could have magnet schools, because they will have several elementary schools in that new expanded districts,” she said, “so I see this as an opportunity for innovation and it could be the salvation of a lot of these smaller schools.”
How much will this cost?
While money is certainly not the driver for this bill, it is a factor. Bill Talbott, CFO for the Agency of Education, estimated it might cost each expanded district as much as $50,000 in legal expenses and other costs, such as the merging of information technology.
The bill provides up to $50,000 for each expanded district, and $20,000 to defray other fees incurred by districts during voluntary realignment.
Then, there are the costs associated with bringing together employees from different school districts with different pay schedules.
“If you take supervisory unions with different salary schedules, you’ll end up with one salary schedule, and we’re going with the assumption that we’ll bringing salaries up,” Talbott said.
Talbott estimated that the alignment of salary schedules could cost the expanded districts anywhere from $6.9 million to $11.9 million. He also noted that the increased costs do not take into account savings that would result from having fewer administrative positions with the expanded districts.
Based upon statewide salaries and wages for 2013, a 1-percent reduction in force would result in a savings of $11.2 million.
The state currently has a law that encourages district consolidation. Act 153 of 2010 created financial incentives for districts to merge, from $10,000 to conduct a study of the financial and educational benefits of consolidation, to $150,000 when a merger actually happens.
There has been exactly one supervisory union consolidation, between the Rutland-Windsor and Windsor Southwest supervisory unions, which, as of 2013, are now collectively the Two Rivers Supervisory Union.
There has also been exactly one school district consolidation to create a regional education district, referred to by education officials as an RED. The southern Vermont mountain towns of Landgrove, Londonderry, Peru and Weston — each of which was its own district — merged with the Flood Brook Union School District to create the Mountain Towns RED.
The bill does away with the financial incentives for consolidation, although districts who apply for grants before the passage of the bill could still receive them.
Districts have had the ability — and financial incentives — to merge voluntarily for the past three years, and by and large, have not done so. Donovan is hopeful that the idea of involuntary consolidation will motivate districts to merge voluntarily.
“If districts do not see this as a way of designing their own future, it would be a mistake because this bill says it is going to happen and we really want this to come from the local districts up,” Donovan said. “I think they are going to be motivated to roll up their sleeves and get working.”