State board backs revamped school districts
By JOSH O’GORMAN
Vermont Press Bureau | March 27,2014
MONTPELIER — A bill seeking to consolidate school districts has received the support of the State Board of Education, though not without a voice of dissent.
By a vote of 6-1 Tuesday, the State Board of Education voted to support H.883, a bill in the Vermont House that would abolish supervisory unions and consolidate the state’s nearly 300 school districts into a series of large “expanded districts” offering education from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
The motion, made by student representative and board co-vice chairman Lachlan Francis and seconded by board member Mark Perrin, states “the Vermont State Board of Education goes on record as strongly supporting H.883.”
It continues: “The Board believes it is time to modernize Vermont’s educational governance system so that all Vermont students are provided equitable opportunity to prosper and thrive in all Vermont schools. The Board further commits to work with the Vermont Legislature and the Agency of Education to fairly implement the new governance structure.”
The bill — which can be read online at goo.gl/AnPl0W — would give school districts until July 1, 2017 to come up with consolidation plans that would first be subject to approval by the State Board Of Education and ultimately by the voters within the expanded district. Those districts that do not consolidate by that date would be subject to a statewide plan that would be created by a “design team,” with members appointed by the Senate, the House and Gov. Peter Shumlin.
The bill was passed Friday by the House Committee on Education and introduced on the House floor Tuesday, when it was referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means.
Stephan Morse, chairman of the State Board of Education, voted in favor of the motion to support the bill. As chairman, Morse typically does not cast a vote, but did so in this case.
“I think it’s the most important piece of educational legislation we have seen in some time,” Morse said. “We must provide educational opportunities to all children statewide, and this is an essential change to our educational governance system.”
The motion did not receive across-the-board support. Board member William Mathis, who alone voted against supporting the bill, spoke Wednesday of his opposition to the consolidation plan.
“It replaces Democracy with bureaucracy,” said Mathis, who was superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union for 27 years and is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center, which deals with policies surrounding school consolidation.
Among Mathis’ criticisms of the bill is the idea that local school boards will be abolished in favor of a single, district-wide board.
“By eliminating school boards, you are eliminating local voice and local control,” he said. “You are taking power away from the school board and giving it to some distant entity.”
The bill does include provisions to create advisory committees for each school, who would work with the local representative on the district-wide board. Mathis said these advisory committees are no substitute for school boards.
“If you establish a group and you give them no authority, what good will it do?” he said.
Mathis spoke in favor of the current supervisory union structure of school governance.
“For an incredibly strange governance structure, it’s done a lot of good things, in terms of centralizing accounting, transportation and special education,” Mathis said.
“Vermont does very well by its students in terms of education,” he said, “and I would argue that it is not in spite of the governance structure, but because of it.”