House debates ban on ‘flipping’ schools
By JOSH O’GORMAN
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | April 02,2014
MONTPELIER — A proposed moratorium on “flipping” public schools to private ones is undergoing debate in the Vermont House.
Tuesday morning, the House Committee on Education took up Senate Bill 91, which would impose a two-year moratorium on allowing a public school to close and then reopen as a private school to serve the same student population.
The bill — which was approved March 14 by the Senate and can be read online at goo.gl/r4LF8K — was produced by the Senate Education Committee. Tuesday, the committee’s secretary, Sen. David Zuckerman, a Progressive from Chittenden County, discussed the bill with his colleagues on the House side.
“As someone who is a supporter of public school and having a local voice, I would argue that turning a public school into a private school is an anathema to local control,” Zuckerman said.
The practice is far from common. But in recent years, a handful of communities have voted to close their public schools and reopen them as private schools. While a public school is governed by a school board composed of publicly elected people, a private school is governed by an unelected board of trustees. Most recently in 2013, the North Bennington Graded School closed its doors as a public school and reopened as private.
Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan, a Democrat from Burlington and chairwoman of the House Committee on Education, argued the move meant a loss of local control for taxpayers.
“In communities like North Bennington, the community is no longer part of the building of the budget. They are bill payers,” Donovan said.
With a two-year moratorium, the bill is a more temporary version of a bill introduced and passed by the Senate during the last biennium that would have banned the practice of flipping schools outright.
Rep. Barbara Rachelson, a Democrat from North Bennington who serves on the House Education Committee, asked if there would be a compelling reason for a public school to close and reopen as a private school during the moratorium.
Zuckerman said private schools are free to pursue revenue streams that public schools cannot, and with the current trend of rising education costs, “the possibility of this coming up again in the future is significant,” he said.
While private schools are free to pursue alternative funding methods, they are also free to omit classes and curriculum that are required at a public school. More than one member of the House Education Committee asked what would happen to a special education student if his school closed and reopened, only to no longer offer special education.
Rep. Brian Campion, a Democrat from Bennington who represents the district that includes North Bennington Graded School, asked if there could be a way to strike a compromise that would allow a school to flip, but still retain local control.
Zuckerman said these are the sorts of questions that could be answered during the moratorium.
The Senate bill also calls for a pair of studies. One aims to see if a municipality has the authority under the state constitution to flip a school. The second study is to determine whether the Legislature has the authority under the state constitution to impose the moratorium in the first place.
Greg Glennon, an attorney for the state Agency of Education, said the two-year moratorium is fairly brief, and if it were to be challenged in court, it is unlikely there would be a decision reached before the moratorium expires.