School consolidation generates questions in Legislature
By JOSH O’GORMAN
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | April 18,2014
MONTPELIER — A bill that would consolidate school districts in the state is generating questions regarding policy and finances, as well as a basic question of just how specific the legislation should be.
House bill 883 establishes a six-year plan to eliminate supervisory unions and consolidate the state’s nearly 300 school districts into 45 to 55 supervisory districts, each with a single governing board, budget and tax rate.
It has traveled from the Education Committee, which drafted the bill, to the Ways and Means Committee, which did a rewrite of the bill, and is now in the Appropriations Committee, which after several days of review has generated a series of questions for the Education Committee.
“If we keep going down this path, the Education Committee will make decisions about the policy. They’ll send that up to us. We would marry that with an Appropriations recommendation and put it on the floor,” said Democratic Rep. Martha Heath of Burlington, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, after a Tuesday morning meeting.
The Appropriations Committee has three recommendations generated by the committee as a whole, as well a list of more than two dozen others from individual members on topics ranging from school choice to fiscal matters.
The recommendations include coming up with a method that would measure quality, opportunity and cost data across different school districts.
The Appropriations Committee took issue with the mechanism by which a state-wide consolidation plan would be implemented. The bill calls for the creation of a Design Team — appointed by the House, Senate and governor — that would present a plan to the Legislature by April 2016.
As the bill is written, the plan would go into effect unless the Legislature votes otherwise. Heath said her committee would prefer to see the plan go into effect only with an affirmative vote by the Legislature.
The committee also questioned the timetable of the state-wide plan. The bill continues to offer the financial incentives to consolidate voluntarily that were established under Act 153 in 2010. The Appropriations Committee recommended pushing out the statewide plan by nine to 12 months to give districts more time to consolidate voluntarily.
The bill states that “to the extent feasible,” the statewide plan will not realign districts that have consolidated voluntarily.
Thursday afternoon, the Education Committee began parsing the Appropriation Committee’s questions. With regard to having an affirmative vote to implement the plan, Democratic Rep. Brian Campion said he always supported having a full vote by the Legislature.
Democratic Rep. Jeffrey Wilson of Manchester, who has spoken to other committees about the bill on behalf of his Ways and Means Committee, offered a compromise that would have the Design Team submit the plan to the State Board of Education for approval and then to the Legislature for a straight up-or-down vote.
The Education Committee did reach consensus to push forward the date for the statewide plan to give more time for districts to consolidate voluntarily.
“There needs to be a longer timeline for smaller communities to come together,” said Democratic Rep. Sarah Buxton of Tunbridge.
As the Education Committee addressed other questions regarding the specifics of implementation, discussion segued to a question at the core of the bill: How specific should the legislation be?
“We are trying to create a blueprint for a plan for people out in the state of Vermont,” said Democratic Burlington Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan, chairwoman of the Education Committee, who said she was struggling with how to stay away from micromanaging while at the same time giving clear guidelines.
“We’re going to have to trust the Design Team to do the due diligence they need to do without us dotting every ‘I’ and crossing every ‘T,’” Wilson said.
However, Campion suggested that these specific questions should be answered before the bill goes to the House floor for debate.
“We can’t be out there, either personally or on the floor, saying, ‘The design team will take care of it,’” Campion said.
The House Education Committee has until Tuesday to respond to the Appropriation Committee’s questions. To get the work done, they might meet Monday, a day the Legislature is usually not in session.