• Much-revised school district merger plan arrives in House
    By JOSH O’GORMAN
    VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | April 27,2014
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    MONTPELIER — In the waning weeks of the legislative session, a bill that would consolidate the state’s school districts will finally have its day on the House floor.

    H. 883 outlines a six-year plan that would consolidate the state’s 273 school districts into 45 to 55 “education districts,” each one offering pre-K-12 education, as well as access to one of the state’s 17 technical centers.

    In addition to consolidating districts, it would do away with local school boards in favor of a single district board and would institute a common tax rate among every town in the district.

    The bill — expected on the House floor Tuesday — began two months ago in the House Education Committee. It made its way through the House Ways and Means Committee, which did a “strike-all” rewrite of the bill before sending it over to the Appropriations Committee, which had a number of policy questions it asked the Education Committee to consider.

    On Thursday, by a 9-1 vote, the Education Committee amended the bill from Ways and Means, and on Friday, by a 7-4 vote, the Appropriations Committee amended the bill again.

    “Conceptually, I don’t disagree,” said Rep. Robert Helm, R-Fair Haven, who voted against the bill as a member of the Appropriations Committee. “However, this thing came in and was created by Education, and Ways and Means erased it all and redid it, and then we erased it all and redid it,” he said.

    “I don’t feel comfortable with the way the thing has landed in front of us like that, and the speed and the track it has been demanded to go back out again,” he added.

    Opposition to the bill does not fall along party lines.

    Democratic Rep. Brian Campion from Bennington — a member of the Education Committee — voted against the bill, as did Rep. Ann Manwaring, a Democrat from Wilmington who serves on the Appropriations Committee.

    “We all vote on bills around education as we believe they will affect our home communities, and in our community, we have just done a joint contract between the towns of Wilmington and Whitingham,” Manwaring said, referring to recent school construction and the consolidation of three buildings to two.

    “Our energy is just emerging from that to figuring out how we can really target better outcomes, especially at the middle and high school level,” Manwaring added.

    In many ways, the bill clarifies a number of questions, including that of school choice. The six-year plan outlined in the bill allows for districts to consolidate voluntarily and creates a “design team” that will write a statewide plan to consolidate the remaining districts.

    Throughout the process, drafts of this bill have included language that would preserve school choice for districts consolidated under the statewide plan, while leaving it up to the district to advocate for a right to school choice when consolidating voluntarily. Until recently, this left open the question of what would happen when a district with school choice consolidates with one that operates a school.

    By statute, the expanded district could not include communities that both have choice and designate a school, because if the opportunity to choose is offered to one student, it must be offered to all.

    The latest draft of the bill both protects school choice for communities that have it, while prohibiting the imposition of choice on communities that operate a school.

    To address this apparent contradiction, the bill allows for the creation of two small districts — one that offers choice and another that does not — that “provide common services,” a nod to the notion that the consolidation of districts will result in the elimination of redundancies and ultimately save money.

    Also of note, the bill does not require consolidating districts to be contiguous, which would allow choice towns that are not next to each other to consolidate; the same is true for districts that operate a school.

    A “small district” is one that does not meet the minimum requirements of either having 1,000 students or result from the consolidation of at least four districts, a provision for isolated parts of the state, panning from North and South Hero to the Northeast Kingdom.

    In fact, the design team has broad latitude in making exceptions to the minimum requirements for an education district.

    “If other factors preclude creation of an Education District that has an average daily membership of at least 1,000 students, then the Plan may create an Education District that does not meet that criterion provided that the District otherwise meets the criteria of an Education District,” the bill states.

    While time is ticking down for this session — House Speaker Shap Smith has set a date of May 9 to adjourn for the year — Gov. Peter Shumlin has expressed support for the bill, and stated optimism that there is enough time to pass a bill that would be the first major overhaul of education governance in more than century.

    “Vermonters are extraordinarily frustrated that their property taxes keep going up and that school spending continues to rise beyond the level of our incomes,” Shumlin said. “Middle-class working Vermonters can’t take much more. So I’ve been working actively with both the House and the Senate leadership, and members of the committees of jurisdiction to listen to everybody’s ideas and hope that we can get out of here with a bill that can at least get us started.”

    While Shumlin expressed his support for the bill, he also expressed opposition to the involuntary consolidation of school districts, which is a major component of the bill.

    “I’m not saying I don’t support reconfiguring the way we administer education in the districts. I think having a K-through-12 education enterprise makes a lot of sense for Vermont,” the governor said. “I do think that whatever the Legislature does should empower local communities to decide their future and their destiny.”

    Republican Rep. Heidi Scheuermann from Stowe, who is exploring a run for governor this year and expects to make an announcement before the end of the legislative session, expressed opposition to the bill.

    “The whole thing is a distraction from property taxes and property tax reform,” said Scheuermann, who has introduced her own consolidation plan to the Legislature three times in the past six years. Last month she introduced a bill that would sunset the current education funding formula for a plan to be named later.

    “Vermonters want property tax reform and this is the Legislature’s way of saying they did something about education,” she said.

    In some ways, Scheuermann’s plan is similar to the governance bill, in that it would consolidate supervisory unions. However, her plan would eliminate the single state education fund in favor of regional education funds for each expanded district.

    Her plan would also preserve local school boards, unlike the consolidation bill, which would create a single board for the expanded district.

    “I’m focused on students and taxpayers, and maybe I’m being cynical, but this seems to be focused on superintendents and the number of meetings they need to attend,” Scheuermann said.

    The bill can be read online at goo.gl/qfUftR.

    joshogorman@timesargus.com
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