School district bill now silent on savings
By JOSH O’GORMAN
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | April 12,2014
MONTPELIER — A House bill that proposes to consolidate the state’s school districts no longer makes any mention that it might save money.
By a 9-2 vote, the House Ways and Means Committee approved a slimmed-down version of the legislation that looks to streamline school governance by erasing borders of the state’s 273 school districts to create about 50 expanded districts.
The vote came two days after the committee took testimony on the bill, H.883, which came out of the House Education Committee in March. At 14 pages, the new version culls the original 39-page one while keeping some of the language.
The fact that it doesn’t address finances is one reason it received a nay vote from Rep. Patricia Komline, R-Dorset.
“What we heard from people at the public hearing was about Act 60 and 68 and the rise in costs, and this does not address that at all,” Komline said. “This is about superintendents who have too many meetings to go to, and I think there are ways we can address that without dismantling local control.”
Rep. William Johnson, R-Canaan, also voted against the bill.
The new bill retains what some people see as an attack on local control: The expanded districts would have a single board to serve multiple schools in multiple towns. Each expanded district would adopt a single budget and have one tax rate for the whole district.
The timetable remains unchanged, with a goal of having expanded districts in place by July 1, 2020.
Under the new bill, the path to get there is a bit different. The original proposal spoke of districts’ creating voluntary consolidation plans. The new plan does that as well, but with financial incentives.
The revised bill puts greater emphasis on Act 153 from 2010, which provides money for districts to explore consolidation — from $20,000 to analyze the feasibility of a merger to $150,000 if a merger actually happens.
While districts are exploring consolidation through Act 153, a “design team” composed of appointees from the House, the Senate and the governor would create a statewide consolidation plan. After several revisions Friday, the eventual bill contains language that would compel the design team to take into account mergers that happen under Act 153 to create “regional education districts,” also known as REDs.
“To the extent feasible, the statewide realignment plan shall not realign a new district created under the regional education district process,” the revised bill states.
The composition and duties of the design team drew a fair amount of discussion Friday. Steven Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, spoke of the “highly politicized” nature of having a design team composed entirely of political appointees.
“All of the power, at the end of the day, rests with this unelected entity. It doesn’t go to the state board, and there isn’t much in the way of a public process,” Dale said.
“My personal fear is that people will turn the focus from students and taxpayers and focus on the power struggle between Montpelier and local communities.”
In the end, the committee agreed on language that would have one of the appointees be the head of the State Board of Education and require that two others have experience serving on a school board in Vermont.
Appointees cannot be members of the House or Senate.
The bill is expected to return to the House Education Committee on Tuesday before making its way to the Appropriations Committee.
The new bill can be read online at goo.gl/uQgEkC. The previous version is at goo.gl/HCu5tN.