Public reaction to school board consolidation mixed

Vermonters care deeply about local schools and that passion was on display Tuesday night, as dozens of people testified in the House Chamber on a proposal that would have a profound effect on their relationship to local schools.

Parents, superintendents, teachers, district business managers and school boards spoke about why they support or oppose the Legislature’s long-range plan to eliminate some 282 local school board districts and replace the current system with 30 to 60 districts statewide.

Those who testified against the proposal — largely citizens, school board members and parents — said that eliminating local school boards would undermine local control. Boards with more students and fewer school board members would put power in the hands of the representatives from larger towns, they said. And in the end, they said such a dramatic change in school governance would lead to higher education costs and less than desirable student outcomes. Local school boards, they said, know best how to control costs and meet the needs of students. Many also worried about the impact of district consolidation on private schools. (Stalwarts from The Sharon Academy were well represented among the assembled.)

An equal number of professional educators, business managers, school members and members of the public argued for consolidation of school boards. They argued that the current system destabilizes efforts to create standards for best teaching practices and unified curriculum and also makes it difficult for districts to share resources such as accounting services and back office support. Because the districts are a “loose confederation,” a disruption in leadership — such as the departure of key school board member or administrator– can destroy an overarching vision for a supervisory union’s educational goals.

Lawmakers say changing the way schools are governed will improve curriculum development, teaching practices, access to data and ultimately lead to better educational outcomes for students.

A secondary result, they say, could be potential cost savings and more stability for taxpayers through better management of financial resources.

Milan Miller from Williamstown told lawmakers that the proposal is “one size fits all and one size doesn’t fit all.” He said when school districts cease to exist local control will disappear and the center of the community will be destroyed.

Merging school districts will disenfranchise small towns, Dorothy Naylor said. The real problem, in her view, is that schools have become top heavy with administration and salaries for principals and superintendents have grown faster than those for teachers and paraprofessionals.

If the Legislature adopts the proposal to consolidate school districts, Naylor said: “I’m afraid we will have cookie cutter schools.”

Heidi Spear, an outspoken opponent of consolidation, told lawmakers she doesn’t see how the proposal will save money or more efficiently deliver services to children. The plan she said is “tantamount to another unfunded mandate.” Rolling up local school teacher contracts into negotiations for multiple schools will lead to higher salaries, she said. A proposed cap on tax increases of 5 percent for schools that choose to consolidate boards is representative of “what we have too much of,” she said it shifts costs to others and is “irresponsible.”

Bob Mason, head of the Vermont Association of School Business Officials, said his organization produced a white paper in 2010 that showed district consolidation could save taxpayers about $30 million a year and have a significant impact on student outcomes.

“The organizational structure is fractured,” Mason said. “Supervisory unions are loosely held confederations of schools, and at any point in time a building administrator or board member could choose to go on their own. Solid initiatives get tabled as a result. If we are truly interested in changing costs, we must change the governance structure in order to do so.”

The system is dysfunctional, according to Nancy Dyke, a longtime educator. Curriculum is not aligned across elementary school districts within one supervisory union, for example, and so when students go on to junior high they have are at different academic levels.

“Another problem is best practices,” Dyke said. “Accountability is weak and people aren’t sure where buck stops and that’s affecting kids. Also we’re having trouble closing the gap (between low-income and middle class student performance) in spite of a homogenous population, and in spite of low student teacher ratios.”

Dyke said the supervisory district structure makes it difficult for district board members to come together with solutions to these problems.

Kevin Campbell, a school board member from Underhill, told lawmakers his district is at a point where “we can’t provide a quality education that’s affordable for residents and they are looking at every option right now, including school mergers.

The bill is being drafted by the House Education Committee; lawmakers hope to finalize the legislation (which is a committee bill and at this point does not have a number) after a public hearing on Tuesday.

Committee members have not yet settled on key components of the legislation, including the timeline, the criteria for districts and how the Legislature would be involved in the process.

The deadline for the “education governance” plan is July 1, 2020. The timeline is broken down into the development of criteria for the formation of districts (spring 2014); and the formation of a work group that would assess the legal and fiscal impact of smaller districts on school choice, tax rates, representation, collection of data and accounting (summer/fall 2014).

Reports on the fiscal and legal impacts of school board consolidation would be due to the General Assembly by January 2015.

School boards would be encouraged to voluntarily realign districts between 2014 and 2017. The minimum district size is four K-12 school districts with at least 1,250 students. A design team would work with local officials in districts that have not found a way to realign voluntarily.

They are expected to vote on the bill in the next few days.

Political pressure is building for changes to the public school system and the statewide property tax structure.

The statewide property tax increased 5 cents per $100 of assessed property value last year and is slated to increase by 4 cents for residential property owners this year.

Thirty-five municipalities out of 246 towns rejected school budgets on Town Meeting Day, according to the Vermont School Boards Association.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:30 a.m.

Anne Galloway

Comments

  1. Bill Birch :

    I’ve yet to see where allowing the government to take over local control has ever resulted in cost savings. They expand programs and waste more money and education gets worse.

    • Rusty Brigham :

      You are correct!!

    • Ward Heneveld :

      Anyone who thinks that towns have meaningful control of educating its children is sorely mistaken. Burlington’s failure last week to understand its own tax proposal is only the tip of the iceberg. Currently, we have centralized policies, programming, and regulations in a decentralized structure. No wonder community participation is low and the turnover in local leadership is high. To summarize where we are: the curriculum and quality standards for school districts are set in detail by the state. Teacher certification and contracting is driven by state government and the Vermont NEA, even though it’s negotiated locally. The expected outcomes for learners that I find on the Department of Education website are detailed by grade in the Common Core which was formulated nationally. Building requirements and school calendars are largely set by the state. And, finally, property tax rates for education are mostly set by the state, not the towns. On top of all that, we’re all used to the way schools are organized and run and reluctant to change almost anything. For example, consider the reaction when some local education leaders suggested a change in the school calendar last year.

      If you read the bill that the House Education Committee has approved you will see that it lays out a process that could allow us to take back some control. It includes almost all options for how the new school districts can organize to deliver education, including school choice for all children in a district. The bill gives communities that will merge the time — six years — to come together and formulate designs for their district. The issue for me is really whether the state will be able to provide the leadership, information, and support that will allow communities, not the state, to formulate their plans for delivering effective education in this new century. And even here the bill sets aside funds to provide that support, and it offers a way to seek waivers if local plans are contrary to current state requirements. In sum, I think the House Education Committee is offering communities a rare opportunity, albeit not by town, to take authority and responsibility for the way they want to deliver education in a global world. I’m grateful and excited by this prospect. If we care about Vermont’s future in a world that is no longer local, we should grab this opportunity.

  2. Teddy Hopkins :

    Many years ago there was local control with the Town title being “Oversee of the Poor”. Today it is called welfare and is controlled by one agent being the State of Vermont. Welfare has ballooned out of sight with no local control. Everything associated with welfare is now labeled confidential and thus become comfortably contained like the center seed of a cucumber. Once the ball gets passed onto the State or Feds you loose all practical methods of control.

    • Peter Liston :

      Yes, in the 19th and early 20th century it was the job of the municipality to care for that town’s poor.

      The most destitute ended up on a local poor farm. And if you think that that system was better than what we have now then I implore you to read up about the inhumane and desperate conditions on Vermont’s poor farms.

      http://vermonthistory.org/journal/misc/Remember_v57.pdf

      Local control has some advantages … but there are horrible problems with it too.

  3. By my count 22 spoke in favor of the committee’s efforts, 10 spoke against those efforts and 3 were ambiguous. There were also a number of folks (such as myself) who were there but didn’t speak, and that number was 10 or 15.

    The facts I found most telling about last night: how few people actually showed up to testify, and most were either district employees or school board members. This issue has received a fair amount of press lately, and last night’s hearing was announced in a number of news outlets. I believe this is indicative of a general public approval of the direction the House ed committee is headed in.

    • Jamie Carter :

      “I believe this is indicative of a general public approval of the direction the House ed committee is headed in.”

      Or maybe it’s just because people can’t travel to Montpelier during the work week?

      The committee, unfortunately, seems to be looking for another band-aid. This is a step in the right direction, but it’s a small step that will unfortunately take away from the complete overhaul this needed.

    • Dave Bellini :

      I’m not sure your crystal ball is 100%. I’m one of those who did NOT show up because I just don’t know if consolidation will save money.
      .
      I’m in favor of anything that lowers my property taxes. For me it’s not a school issue, it’s an affordability issue. Even with income sensitivity the costs keep going up.
      .
      This problem with school budgets will continue unless and until there is property tax relief/reform. Maybe the answer is paying for education through the income tax and having the state administer everything. There isn’t local control now, only the illusion of local control. Act 60/68 got the state involved and that isn’t going to change. One possible answer is to SPEND LESS but who wants to do that?

    • Stu Lindberg :

      I didn’t show up because I am working 60 hours a week trying to pay my property tax bill. My wife is working 40 hours per week. Rama, you can bet we are paying awfully close attention to the communist centralization of our educational system. There will be hell to pay in November for politicians who vote to implement this tyrannical piece of legislation.

  4. Bill Birch :

    How many people can take time out from work or have to consider the expense of driving to Montpelier.

    • Peter Liston :

      If people care enough … they show up. I’ve seen thousands show up to testify on issues like gay marriage and GMO labeling.

  5. Tom Cecere :

    There’s no hurry here. The legislature should recess without passing a controversial bill, and then run for office in November on a platform of school board consolidation. We’ll then see how popular it is.

  6. Janice Prindle :

    I wouldn’t draw that conclusion at all, Ms. Schneider. Most people today are not big consumers of news, apart from a few sound bytes on the networks. Announcements of a public hearing on an issue that has never been adequately covered in depth, and which appears to be about bureaucracy, and is happening on a school night in cold weather, is unlikely to bring out many people. Especially when coverage of this issue lacks any clear rationale or reporting on who is really pushing for this proposal.

    Nor would I draw a very sound conclusion from a public hearing where most of the speakers are district employees and school board members.

    I find the statement from Ms. Galloway, “public pressure is building for changes to the public school system,” equally unsubstantiated, and I’m surprised by that. Here in the real world, as a former journalist and retired teacher, I haven’t heard or seen any such pressure for change. Sure, more school budgets were voted down this year. From time to time, that happens, as it always has. But where do you hear people calling for more bureaucracy, bigger bureaucracy, more top-down state mandates?

    This is, frankly, lazy reporting. I would hope Digger would dig a little deeper and find out where this “pressure” is coming from, apart from the business group Citizens for Vermont, a collection of one percenters, it appears.

    • Careful about the conclusions you DO draw,

      Mr. Schneider

    • Jamie Carter :

      ” I haven’t heard or seen any such pressure for change. ….. But where do you hear people calling for more bureaucracy, bigger bureaucracy, more top-down state mandates?”

      Well let me be the first then to tell you that I am pressuring for change. There now you have heard it.

      And that doesn’t mean more bureaucracy and top down state mandates. There are other changes that could be made.

  7. Wayne Andrews :

    Perhaps the working man has limited time to attend all these hearings and the location is too far away.

  8. Tom Sullivan :

    Do people forget (or overlook) that “local control” is what got us into this mess? If you choose not to believe that, I know of 35 communities that would disagree with you.

  9. Dan Carver :

    Based on the comments, it appears that some folks are confusing school consolidations (closing schools and mergeing into a building) versus consolidating governance (one superintendent, business manager, curricular officer, and school board) per larger district. How much money is wasted with 282 teams negotiating against one union?
    Each town represented in a district could have one board member to ensure equal voices.
    Ms. Prindle the concern of the growth in school spending has repeatedly been an issue in Vermont. Oil on the fire this year was Shumlin’s admonishment of school boards for not holding down costs, when state and federal mandates are key cost drivers. When towns turn to privatizing their schools, the state halts the practice. Local control is a fantasy abolished in the 1990’2.

  10. Elinor Osborn :

    The push to consolidate school administration into large districts is very concerning to me. The further superintendents and school boards are removed from the community and students, the more the administration loses touch with those community schools. A school board made up of many communities can’t know the cultures of other communities which may all be very different.

    Will administrative consolidation really save money? I doubt it because: 1-now the superintendent budgets, which the public does not vote on (at least in the OSSU), are too large due in part to too high salaries. With moving administration further away and with no voting on its budget, it appears that administrations tend to spend even more. 2-Our school directors are very hard working volunteers who are not paid. No money saved there.

    The Times Argus editorial of 3/2/14 says ”Is the bulk purchasing of copy paper worth the tumultuous transformation now being contemplated?” I certainly don’t think so. VT schools are rated among the top in the nation. Why tinker with something that is not broken? Let’s not lose the benefits of small and local—looks as if it’s working.

    VT Digger reports, “Lawmakers say changing the way schools are governed will improve curriculum development, teaching practices, access to data and ultimately lead to better educational outcomes for students.” I do not see how and have seen no proof that consolidating districts will 1-“improve curriculum development”. What is our state ed department doing? Can’t it oversee curriculum? 2- “improve teaching practices”. School boards hiring talented teachers who will fit into their schools do that. There are professional development days now. Can’t the state ed dept. take more control of what those days offer without any consolidation? 3-“improve access to data”. We are in a computer age. Can’t state software on all school computers compile and work with data?

    Again in VT Digger, “A secondary result, they say, could be potential cost savings and more stability for taxpayers through better management of financial resources.” “Could be”? So the legislature is not sure this consolidation will be a cost savings? Wait a minute. I thought cost saving was the big problem, not failing education. So, I repeat, why tinker with something that is not broken?
    Let’s finance education with an income tax, not a property tax. That would seem to be more fair. Let’s stop the state from raiding the Education Fund for other uses. Let’s keep dollars close to the classroom not in administration.

    • Helen Keith :

      I believe curriculum planning and oversight has already been uploaded to the Supervisory Unions as a key responsibility…

  11. Wayne Andrews :

    To Mr. Carver: What does the 3 piece suit in Montpelier know about negociating my town’s ability to pay when it comes to teachers contract? Maybe the suit is from Vernon, Dover or Stratton.

    • Dan Carver :

      Hi Wayne,
      First, I’d have to question the comment of your town’s ability to pay. When 70% of homeowners in Vermont receive property tax relief, you do not know what your town is actually paying anyway–they are committing some town members and folks outside your town to an operating budget; but who pays!
      Currently, your school board may want to pay a certain % wage increase to teachers, yet if the teachers do not agree, then the negotiations go to an arbitrator. The arbitrator looks at the agreed upon rate increases of other area towns and establishes a reasonably acceptable increase; usually higher than what the board was offering.

      Secondly, your local board member has a more difficult time eliminating excess staffing, particularly in smaller districts, because the excess staffing is a relative.

      Lastly, in Vermont, the 3-pc suit may come with a skirt and heels, or denim and work boots.
      Thanks for asking.

      • Dan Carver :

        Addendum…
        This proposal is to go from 282 districts to a range between 30 and 60, not 1. So, the negotiator won’t be from Montpelier, they will be local.
        Therefore 4 to 6 local schools would now have 1 superintendent, business manager, and curriculum director instead of these rolls being fulfilled by every town. There is a lot more savings here than $300,000 per year. This proposal keeps the spending on student focused areas and reduces overhead costs.
        Thanks.

  12. Heidi Spear :

    As a point of clarification, I consider myself an outspoken opponent of Act 68, not consolidation, which I see as having real potential to improve education for some children in Vermont. I am opposed to top-down consolidation initiatives that lack clear objectives, reduce accountability, create spending loopholes and lack any cost-benefit analysis.

  13. Bruce Lierman :

    Does consolidation improve education? Everyone has their own favorite study, and here is mine; the Pennsylvania School Boards Association study of consolidation in the districts of western Pennsylvania: http://www.psba.org/issues-advocacy/issues-research/school-mergers/psba-merger-paper.pdf  I’m sure one can find other references on both sides, but this one strikes me valuable because of its objective consideration of the complexities of this issue.
    In sum:
    1. Small districts with high percentages of low income students saw a decrease in educational quality.
    2. No money was saved.
    One might assume that I oppose consolidation, because our village and school district elected to close our public school and open an independent academy, and I strongly support this change.  But the word consolidation, like privatization, has become an emotional term, and lost any precision it may ever have had.  Pro or con, it means whatever the current advocate chooses it to mean.
    If, by consolidation, one means the removal, streamlining, and simplification of educational administration (as opposed to educational delivery) structures, I’m all for it. If one means rededicating state and regional educational administration structures to supporting the individual districts in providing the best possible education for the families in the district,  I support it even more strongly.
    There are important roles for state educational organizations to fill. For example:
    1. Defining meaningful measures of educational success and quality, a demanding task.
    2. Certifying the qualifications of educational professionals. 
    3. Insuring federal and state funds are distributed according law.
    In this current technological age, I see no reason why these tasks require Supervisory Units or any other structures between the Agency of Education and the local districts.  This, of course assumes the role of the Agency of Education is to support the districts in meeting the highest standards of education.  If that is not the goal – if the goal is to maintain an expensive, centrally managed bureaucracy – then you need SUs, REDS, or K-12 regional organizations to maintain control of the power base. 
    Furthermore, I have a question; I know of no district that hasn’t conscientiously done everything in its power to reduce costs as much as possible.  We have no choice, since we face the voters.  Can the rest of the educational administrative structure, from the Vermont Secretary of Education down, say the same?
    To me, it boils down to this;  if the purpose of Vermont’s educational administration is to support districts in innovating, adapting and seeking excellence in education, administrative structure is of little concern.  If the goal is to maintain control of the districts, for whatever political reasons, education in our district’s schools will suffer no matter what administrative format is chosen.

  14. Bruce Lierman :

    Does consolidation improve education? Everyone has their own favorite study, and here is mine; the Pennsylvania School Boards Association study of consolidation in the districts of western Pennsylvania: http://www.psba.org/issues-advocacy/issues-research/school-mergers/psba-merger-paper.pdf  I’m sure one can find other references on both sides, but this one strikes me as valuable because of its objective consideration of the complexities of this issue.
    In sum:
    1. districts with high percentages of low income students saw a decrease in educational quality.
    2. no money was saved.
    One might assume that I oppose consolidation, because our village and school district elected to close our public school and open an independent academy, and I strongly support this change.  But the word consolidation, like privatization, has become an emotional term, and lost any precision it may ever have had.  Pro or con, it means whatever the current advocate chooses it to mean.
    If, by consolidation, one means the removal, streamlining, and simplification of educational administration (as opposed to educational delivery) structures, I’m all for it. If one means rededicating state and regional educational administration structures to supporting the individual districts in providing the best possible education for the families in the district,  I support it even more strongly.
    There are important roles for state educational organizations to fill; for example:
    1. Defining meaningful measures of educational success and quality, a demanding task.
    2. Certifying the qualifications of educational professionals. 
    3. Insuring federal and state funds are distributed according law.
    In this current technological age, I see no reason why these tasks require Supervisory Units or any other structures between the Agency of Education and the local districts.  This, of course assumes the role of the Agency of Education is to support the districts in meeting the highest standards of education.  If that is not the goal – if the goal is to maintain an expensive, centrally managed bureaucracy – then you need SUs, REDS, or K-12 regional organizations to maintain control of the power base. 
    Furthermore, I have a question; I know of no district that hasn’t conscientiously done everything in its power to reduce costs as much as possible.  We have no choice, since we face the voters.  Can the rest of the educational administrative structure, from the Vermont Secretary of Education down, say the same?
    To me, it boils down to this;  if the purpose of Vermont’s educational administration is to support districts in innovating, adapting and seeking excellence in education, administrative structure is of little concern.  If the goal is to maintain control of the districts, for whatever political reasons, education in our district’s schools will suffer no matter what administrative format is chosen.

  15. Ed Deegan :

    It’s interesting that today’s front page Times Argus story is about Mr. Talbott from the Agency of Education stating the cost increase this will cause. This is not an unfunded mandate. This will be funded by the taxpayers (primarily property tax payers) from the state of Vermont. Does anyone think centralizing more power at the state of Vermont level can do things more effectively or efficiently than the current system? We centralized the funding with the state taking over control with Act 60 and then Act 68. How’s that working out for us? Not to well.

  16. Wayne Andrews :

    Dan: If those residing in a small town dont know what they can afford to pay your answer is to let someone else determine that amount for them? I dont think so. Maybe the municipality gave their employees a 3 % raise. Maybe the local mill gave their employees a 2.4% raise. Maybe the senior received a COLA of 2%. Those operating the towns of Dover, Stratto and Vernon most definately do not think like those in say, Benson, Searsburg and Alburg.

    • Dan Carver :

      Wayne,
      The article is about school governance. The financing mechanism is not part of this discussion. The education portion of yrou property tax, for all Vermonters with incomes under $90,000, would still be determined by Montpelier, as it has for the last 15 (?)years. So I do not understadn your point.

      Dan

  17. Ok, years and years go by and still our children are not being educated. All I hear in these debates is, “our children need better education, we need better Teachers”. Exactly when will we get “better teachers and better education”?

    There is one thing, and it’s the most obvious to me, and that’s the children. This is about the State controlling our children, taking them for longer and longer periods of time, away from their homes and parents. When will it come down to ONE school in Vermont? One school and a very expensive bussing system that would put children in transit to schools for hours each way, every day?

    No matter how much CHOICE there is in schools, the simple fact of the Common Core Curriculum (which has very bad reviews and is being redacted in some States) will assure that we are still on a path of worse education and less school choice. School choice should be about what Parents want their children to learn. With Common Core,( to quote Hillary Clinton), “at this point, what difference does it make”? If Parents can’t choose what education their child receives, by having choice of curriculum, they only have a choice of “how far do they want to ship their children for this questionable Common Core Curriculum? School choice should be about a parents choice of what their child learns, not what the State and Federal Government wants!

    It’s not about the schools, it’s about the children and State control of “the children”.

  18. Stu Lindberg :

    H. 544, the school governance restructuring bill that has passed through the Vermont House education committee is a disaster in the making. Lawmakers hold out Burlington’s school governance as a model for the rest of Vermont to follow. So what is it that is so special about Burlington’s school governance that is so exemplary. Is it Burlington’s efficient use of tax payer dollars? Probably not. Burlington’s school budget has gone from $37 million dollars in 2008 to $63 million in 2013. Johanna Donovan (D) is the chair of the Vermont House education committee. She represents Burlington in the Vermont legislature. She is leading the charge to get rid of local school boards in order to improve educational “outcomes” for students. So what are the “outcomes” of Miss Donovan’s Burlington school district. 64% of Burlington’s 11 graders are below proficient in the NECAP Math testing. 72% are below proficient in science, 54% are below proficient in writing and 38% are below proficient in reading. In old school terminology “below proficient” means “failing.“ So what does Burlington’s school governance model have to offer? Big budgets, big spending and poor results. This is the model the rest of Vermont should follow? Shap Smith (D) Speaker of the Vermont house of representatives says that Vermont’s century old school governance model is outdated and needs to be updated so “we don’t leave Vermont’s children behind.” Sounds good Mr. Speaker but if Burlington is the model Vermont’s Democratic supermajority wants the rest of us to follow than you can be assured most of our children will be left behind.
    As for Ms. Donovan, in her own words, says she is “one of the greatest opponents of school choice in the legislature“, yet she herself attended a private school. “Why is it Ms. Donovan’s business, or any politicians, to be involved with the outcome of my child’s education?
    The “outcome” of my child’s education belongs to me, my child and their teachers. If you don’t like what the legislature is doing with our schools then call your local state representative and tell them NO on restructuring school governance. Remember there is an election in November. Your vote can make a difference.

  19. Ellen Fiske :

    We need school reform, but in the other direction- more ability for schools to be responsive to individual kids’ needs, not more homogenization. More power for parents to ask for what their kids need in schools, and for kids to attend only parts of school days and blend homeschooling and in-school learning. More diversity of curriculum from one public school to another, and more school choice among the public schools, so parents can send their kids to the best public school for their kid, including if it’s the neighboring town’s public school. School boards should open more topics up to public vote, so the citizens have more control over their local school. This bill in the state house goes in the wrong direction.

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