School district mergers debated in House, Senate
By JOSH O’GORMAN
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | April 30,2014
MONTPELIER — A school district consolidation bill underwent rigorous debate Tuesday, as the Senate took up a last-minute alternative proposal from the Agency of Education.
House Bill 883 would eliminate supervisory unions and consolidate the state’s 273 school districts into 45-55 “education districts” that offer pre-K through grade 12 education and provide access to the state’s 17 career technical centers.
“We’ve seen a precipitous drop in Vermont’s K-through-12 student population over the years,” said Rep. Jeff Wilson, D-Manchester, who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, one of three House committees to draft legislation for the bill.
“It’s time to put into motion the realignment process put forth in House Bill 883, so that we can move forward with matching these lower student numbers with a more efficient, effective governance system,” he said.
While many people have spoken of how the bill could be the answer to rising education costs in the face of declining enrollments — Gov. Peter Shumlin said as much last week — the expressed intent of the bill is to rectify the unequal education opportunities at different schools.
“Today, we are challenged to meet the needs of 21st-century students within the confines of a 20th-century delivery system and a governance system from the 19th century,” said Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan, D-Burlington, chairwoman of the House Education committee, which worked on the bill for three months.
Rep. William Stevens, I-Shoreham, questioned many aspects of the bill, from the number of regional meetings that would be held by the “design team” — which would create a statewide realignment plan for districts that don’t consolidate voluntarily by 2017 — to what evidence exists that not every child in the state has equal education opportunities.
“I am not convinced that this bill does too much to address the concerns that folks in my district are expressing,” Stevens said. “That’s not to say that equitable access and opportunity and addressing community stress and the achievement gap aren’t important, but what I hear in my district are ‘funding, affordability and value.’”
Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, took issue with the fact that the House Education Committee, which held many community meetings, did not hold such a meeting in the southeast corner of the state.
“I’m concerned that we might pass legislation without having traveled to the hinterlands of the state to gather input from everyone,” Hebert said.
The House debated their governance bill late into the night, but earlier in the day the Senate Education Committee took up some last-minute consolidation legislation proposed by the Agency of Education, which in many ways differs significantly from the House bill.
Under the language from the Agency of Education, there would be no design team and no involuntary consolidation. Districts would be encouraged to consolidate and, up until July 2017, would receive double the financial incentives promised under Act 153 of 2010, which creates “regional school districts,” or REDs.
This means a RED — composed of at least 1,000 students or at least four districts — would receive as much as $300,000, if it receives unanimous approval from every district that is coming together.
In an apparent effort to encourage districts to get started on consolidation, REDs that come together after July 2017 but before July 2019 would receive half the incentive money promised under Act 153 of 2010.
Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, took issue with the need for financial incentives.
“Why do we need incentives if it’s such a good idea?” he said. “Why don’t they consolidate if it will save money and increase opportunities for students?”
And while there is no statewide involuntary consolidation plan as there is in the House bill, the proposed legislation from the Agency of Education would impose financial penalties on districts that have not “made serious effort” toward consolidation.
Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, suggested striking language that would impose the financial penalties, while Sen. William Doyle, R-Washington, suggested that, at the very least, they would need to define the use of the word “serious.”
The new language also gives authority to Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe to create “supervisory union service districts” composed of multiple supervisory unions that would come together in an effort to save money on transportation expenses, professional development and the purchase of goods and services.
Also, the language would require a supervisory union board that wishes to fire a superintendent to first receive approval from Holcombe.
With the Legislature looking at adjourning in less than two weeks, McCormack said he would vote against the proposal.
“I will not be voting for this bill, just as a matter of due diligence,” he said.
“Nor will I,” Doyle said.
“We have a two-month bill, and we are being asked to do a two-month bill in two days,” McCormack said.