Legislators deadlock on school consolidation
By JOSH O’GORMAN
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | May 10,2014
MONTPELIER — Efforts to consolidate school districts appears to have stalled for the legislative session.
After hours of debate Thursday night and Friday morning, the Senate approved a miscellaneous education bill that offers a consolidation plan that varies greatly from a different consolidation plan approved April 30 by the House.
After approval from the Senate, the bill was sent to the House, which had the choice of either approving the bill with the amendments from the Senate or voting to create a conference committee composed of senators and representatives.
However, to do this, the House would have had to vote to take up the issue, which they did not.
With today most likely being the last day of the legislative session, it is unlikely there is enough time.
The miscellaneous tax bill was the second proposal seeking to consolidate schools this session. H.883, a bill passed April 30 by the House, calls for increasing financial incentives for school districts to consolidate voluntarily, while creating an appointed “design team” that would come up with a plan to consolidate the remaining districts involuntarily.
Because the bill came out of the House after “crossover day” in March, it was referred to the Senate Rules Committee for approval to introduce it at such a late date. It has stayed there for the past seven working days, and will likely stay there for the final hours of the legislative session.
The miscellaneous education bill, H.876, received broad support from the Senate by a vote of 23-5. It contains a number of education initiatives, including tightening up the supervision of principals by superintendents; creating a Vermont Physical Education and Nutrition Task Force; and requiring districts to move to a single style of financial bookkeeping to make it easier to compare one district to another.
But at the heart of the miscellaneous education bill is a last-minute consolidation plan that would do away with any sort of involuntarily consolidation plan and instead raises even further the financial incentives for districts to consolidate voluntarily.
Currently, the state offers as much as $150,000 upon the creation of a “regional education district,” or RED, with multiple towns governed by a single school board and with a single tax rate. The proposal in the miscellaneous tax bill raises that incentive to as much as $500,000.
The Senate also passed an amendment that would place a two-year moratorium on allowing a public school to close and reopen as a private school that serves the same student population, much as the North Bennington Graded School did in 2013.
This is actually the Senate’s second attempt at this; a bill that would impose such a moratorium was ordered to let lie April 16 in the House because of lack of support after receiving approval from the Senate.
The miscellaneous education bill did draw some criticism from members of the Senate, including Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham.
“I acknowledge this bill is considerably better than the one we might have been looking at, but it presupposes that consolidation is good,” White said. “I am not convinced that governance will either save money or offer a better quality of education for students. It seems pretty clear that after consolidating school districts, the next step is to consolidate schools themselves.”
With both consolidation proposals dead in the water, it appears consolidation — as well as the other initiatives in the miscellaneous education bill — will be put off until the 2015 legislative session.
Today, the Legislature is expected to take up other bills, including one addressing economic development.