It is possible that legislators who devised the latest school consolidation bill thought it might slip quietly through to passage on the basic of its self-evident logic. But that is not likely. A hearing at the State House last week showed that feelings about the bill are strong, and whatever happens to the bill, it won’t go quietly.
This is the bill that would abolish school boards in towns throughout Vermont, shifting governance of the towns’ many schools to large central school boards. Over six years, the state’s 273 school districts and 59 supervisory unions would be consolidated into unified boards operating all the K-12 schools in their districts.
For example, the new system might result in a new district encompassing what is now the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, made up of the towns of Brandon, Pittsford, Sudbury, Whiting, Goshen and Leicester. A single board with representation from all the towns would run all the schools in those towns, with representation presumably weighted by population. Similar districts around the state would consolidate governance of groups of schools into the hands of multi-town boards.
Supporters of the change say by giving authority to a single board, it would help school officials more efficiently expand educational opportunity to more schools. They say now that superintendents are stretched thin by their duties attending school board meetings in six or eight towns. If a superintendent had only to attend to one school board, then he or she could devote more time to improving education.
Opponents of the bill spoke out at the hearing last week, saying local school boards are better able to respond to the needs of residents as they relate to the school. They are closer to the people and more knowledgeable about the school. They have a civic bond with their school and a connection with the families sending children to the school. Often board members themselves are parents with an interest in making sure their children’s school is well run.
If a small town with a small elementary school was represented by only one board member on a large district board with 11 or so members from other towns, how much representation would the town and school get? What kind of connection would exist between townspeople and the people running the school? Wouldn’t the budget for their school be subject to the decisions of a board whose membership was weighted toward the large central towns?
If the authors of the bill have an agenda that includes the closing of small-town schools, then this would be one way of pursuing it. It’s not clear that is their intent, but hundreds of towns around Vermont might sense in the abolition of their school boards a bias against small schools.
Defending the interests of the small towns must not be dismissed as a parochial, provincial reaction against change. It is a recognition of the unique geography, history and culture of a state where small communities, divided from one another by rugged mountains, have had to form strong community bonds and to do things for themselves. That sort of self-sufficiency has created a strong strain of local democracy that is the envy of the world. And operating local schools is one of the primary functions of our local democracies.
In some parts of Vermont we already have consolidated schools. Burlington and Rutland have large school boards that run their elementary and high schools, and it works well enough because these are political and geographical units for which a consolidated district makes sense. Even so, it is likely that principals at the individual schools within our larger cities lack the kind of connection with their school boards that principals in smaller towns enjoy.
Superintendents tend to like this bill; it would make their lives easier. But if education is suffering because superintendents must attend too many meetings, supervisory union boards have it within their power to hire assistant superintendents to help out. It would be no more expensive than the costs of the proposed consolidation. Catering to the superintendents is to let the tail wag the dog.
The children are the dog. Our supervisory unions have it within their powers to share resources, expand opportunities, enrich programs. But it is the local school boards that have special knowledge and closeness with local schools, parents, teachers, principals. Shifting power away from them to some sort of out-of-town super-board is to go in the wrong direction.