Historic changes to structure of Vermont school system approved by House panel | VTDigger
 

Historic changes to structure of Vermont school system approved by House panel

House Education Committee Chairwoman Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, said the State Board of Education would play an advisory role under the new structure. Photo by Josh Larkin.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, said the State Board of Education would play an advisory role under the new structure. File photo by Josh Larkin/VTDigger.

A Vermont House panel has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would create sweeping changes to the way Vermont schools are governed. H.883 would reduce the total number of municipal school districts from 282 to 45 by 2020.

If the legislation is successful (it has to pass the House and the Senate), it will be the first time the state’s home rule structure has changed since 1892 when the state went from 2,500 local school boards to a total of 300.

Members of the House Education Committee approved the bill in a 10-0-1 vote on Friday, despite pushback from colleagues in the House, substantial resistance from members of the Senate and the potential for an uphill public relations battle in school districts around the state.

Republicans and Democrats alike on the Education Committee are satisfied that the legislation, which they spent weeks revising, taking testimony on and arguing over, will improve educational opportunities for children and perhaps save money, particularly in areas of the state where student enrollments have declined precipitously over the last 15 years. (The average decline statewide is 20 percent.)

Rep. Larry Cupoli, R-Rutland, says the legislation will “do a lot of good for a lot of people, especially small schools.”

“Kids will have more opportunities, and it may even benefit taxpayers,” Cupoli said.

Proponents of the bill, including Rep. Johanna Donovan, D-Burlington, who has pushed hard for the legislation, says H.883 will “increase opportunities for students” and “bend the curve in education spending.”

Rural school districts have fewer and fewer students and less opportunity for quality educational opportunities, Donovan said. “We don’t want to go back to the one-room schoolhouse,” she said. “We want to optimize learning and see what we can do by being innovative.”

H.883 would eliminate the state’s 60 existing supervisory union districts and require the formation of expanded regional school districts with one board, no fewer than 1,200 students and at least four municipal districts. Under the plan, each municipality would have a representative that would serve on a regional district board. Currently, many supervisory union districts have many fewer students (500 to 800 is not uncommon) and serve as a loose confederation of five to seven separate boards.

Vermont has the lowest student to school board member ratio in the nation: One school board member for 57 students.

The expansion of pre-K to 12th grade districts could result in the elimination of layers of administrative bureaucracy, better accountability, more flexibility for staff, new uses for buildings, the development of thematic learning modules and an opportunity to combine resources for accounting and special education, lawmakers say. It could also make it possible for school districts to afford teachers with specialities in Arabic, Chinese and the sciences.

Districts that have had difficulty attracting school board members and a superintendent who is willing to oversee five to seven different school boards would also have an opportunity to stabilize district leadership, according to lawmakers and consolidation advocates. This year the state will have 15 superintendent vacancies and 30 percent turnover among principals, Donovan says.

The downside is a loss of local control. Town school district boards would no longer have direct control over budget and program decisions made at their local school. At a public hearing last week, members of the public and school board members said they didn’t want to cede local authority to a regional board.

Private schools, which have been an integral part of the state’s system, are wary about what role they will play in the new expanded school districts.

There is also grave concern about the potential for school closures in rural areas where the elementary school serves as the community center.

Montpelier residents rejected a proposed $17,985,069 school budget by 81 votes on Town Meeting Day, March 4, 2014. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Montpelier residents rejected a proposed $17,985,069 school budget by 81 votes on Town Meeting Day, March 4, 2014. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Donovan recognizes that combining school districts can be a heavy lift. It is a “very, very emotional issue, and people can get stuck on things,” she said.

But she says the state needs to develop a modern delivery system that improves education. Too few students are going into post-secondary programs, she said, and employers can’t find the workers they need in Vermont. “We want kids coming out of public schools to be ready,” Donovan said.

Many low wage jobs have disappeared or have gone overseas, and lawmakers are concerned that in the future, unless the educational system changes, Vermont students will not be able to obtain the range of skills they need to find meaningful work and adapt to a rapidly shifting economy. If the state doesn’t address this problem, growing inequality could cripple the state’s economy, according to the legislation.

With the advent of globalization, societal changes and enormous technological advances, students must acquire “21st century” skills, according to the legislation. The legislation lays out those skills, which include the ability to “innovate, adapt, handle nonroutine problems, reason with evidence, synthesize and analyze complex data, work confidently with technology, collaborate in teams and communicate effectively through a variety of media.”

“We understand that a change in governance alone will not yield better outcomes for students,” the bill states. “We believe, however, that a strong supervisory district structure will make it possible for our schools to collaborate, share resources and work systematically to provide more opportunities and higher quality instruction for our children. We believe that the current structure, with its substantial inequalities, multiple small governing units and conflicting lines of authority makes it too difficult for our schools to work together coherently to support our ambitious goals for our students.”

Like Act 48, the single-payer bill, H.883 also sets a timeframe with a series of deadlines for local school boards and the Agency of Education to determine how to draw new district lines based on historical precedent, geography and other factors.

“Part of this is having a date certain when this can happen and try to build in supports to give local school boards the help we need,” Donovan said.

The legislation sets aside $4 million for legal, accounting and organizational support for school board districts across the state.

Politically, H.883 has a rough road ahead, though in the wake of 35 school budget defeats earlier this month, a number of lawmakers say the current system is financially unsustainable.

Still, the legislation has to pass through a double gauntlet in the General Assembly before the end of the biennium in early May, otherwise lawmakers will have to start over next January.

It’s not clear how many House members, especially those in the Democratic majority, oppose the bill, but Donovan says her committee will be making a concerted effort to meet with colleagues in the House this week. Many people, she said, are fearful about how the changes will affect their districts and she and the Education Committee members want to answer their questions.

“I think members of my committee are going to reach out to colleagues and discuss their openness to the question and concerns,” Donovan said. “It is my hope that out of these conversations we will make people understand this is not limiting student opportunity, this is not limiting local control.”

Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford, chair of House Appropriations and a longtime school board member, said her community voted against a voluntary district merger “big time” because the consolidation would have resulted in less representation and higher costs. It also would have ended school choice in Westford, she said. (The Agency of Education told her district that offering public school choice for some students and not others was unconstitutional.)

Though Heath has grave concerns about H.883, she says she is willing to listen to the committee’s proposal.

House Speaker Shap Smith spoke in support of a bill to increase the role of the Department of Public Service’s public advocate during a news conference at the Statehouse Monday, Jan. 6, 2014. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

House Speaker Shap Smith. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

House Speaker Shap Smith supports the proposal, and he is giving Donovan and her committee more time to pitch H.883 to lawmakers before the bill comes to the floor of the House.

“The bill acknowledges that we live in the 21st century, not the 19th century,” Smith says.

Smith says there is more momentum behind district mergers now, and he believes people will be more willing to talk about changes and be open about what change looks like. “We have to harness that energy and see where it goes,” Smith said. “We know the system is not sustainable and while we are getting quality it’s not the best quality it could be.”

“There are a lot of people with legitimate concerns about change,” Smith said. “Our challenge in the leadership is to figure out ways to make people comfortable with change as we move forward.”

Even if H.883 passes the House, lawmakers on the Senate Education Committee are not anxious to move the bill forward. Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, says he is “agnostic” about the bill and at this point he is non-committal about the fate of its passage in his committee.

“Theoretically, I could be convinced, but I have big questions,” McCormack said. “Why are we doing this at all? This initiative is subject to mission creep.”

McCormack says the legislation appears to be a response to taxpayer dissatisfaction, and yet lawmakers say it has nothing to do with money and it’s about improving education quality. He says he doesn’t know which problem the legislation is meant to address, nor is he sure whether there is public support.

“Is it just rearranging the furniture, or does the public really want it?”

The Vermont-NEA is less than enthusiastic about H.883. Joel Cook, executive director of the union, says he has testified 30 times on similar proposals over the last several decades.

In written testimony, Cook reiterated his belief that it is important to maintain local control. “The extent those of us with a statewide perspective fail to take local community interests sufficiently into account, governance change plans fail,” Cook wrote. “They may fail anyway because of local community interests.”

Cook also says that the proposal includes “nothing convincing” about expanded educational opportunities.

Finally, the Vermont-NEA disagrees that school spending is unsustainable. Cook argues that “growth in expenditures, notwithstanding the declining student enrollment is commensurate with inflation and demands placed on public education by the federal government and the state.”

In 2013, the state’s public school system, which educates about 80,000 students, cost $1.127 billion, according to Bill Talbott, the chief financial officer for the Agency of Education.

Details of H.883:

The legislation creates a “legal and fiscal research group” charged with addressing issues relating to voting and representation on school boards, operating and nonoperating districts, tax rates and procedures for voting on district-wide budgets. The group must present options to the General Assembly for legislative action by Jan. 1, 2015.

Districts will be given the option to voluntarily realign into an expanded district and can apply to become a regional education district with the State Board of Education before July 1, 2016. Voters must approve the expanded districts by July 1, 2017.

A design team will monitor the voluntary realignment of districts and design a statewide plan for remaining districts. The team will work with school boards, solicit public input and incorporate performance indicators and information from the legal and research groups in the development of the plan. Final approval of the statewide plan must occur by July 1, 2018.

All expanded districts shall begin operation by July 1, 2020.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:38 a.m.

Correction: Heath was referring to public school choice, not private school choice.

Anne Galloway

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39 Comments on "Historic changes to structure of Vermont school system approved by House panel"

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John Freitag
2 years 6 months ago

I do not recall any legislator running for election with the intent of elimination of our local school boards. This bill has no demonstrable cost savings or evidence that consolidation will improve the education we provide our children. At the very least politicians who favor this radical restructuring of our educational system should before passing a bill , be willing to explain to the voters before the nest election why they think this fundamental change is needed. John Frietag

Wayne Andrews
2 years 6 months ago

Another good example of liberal thinking. Vote today, and save my immediate butt, to have a law go into effect in 2020 when the legislator is under grass facing east..

Scott Beaudin
2 years 6 months ago

Does it seem odd to anyone else that the same citizenry that is deathly afraid of the State making their school decisions and eliminating hundreds of school board members, is the same citizenry that seems willing to give the State and a five member board control of its health care?

Jim Christiansen
2 years 6 months ago

Some might consider that a logical observation.

Wendy wilton
2 years 5 months ago

Excellent point, Scott.

Jamie Carter
2 years 6 months ago
This seems to be change for the sake of making change. The Legislature realizes that its time to change our educations system. But they don’t have a clue as to how to change it and what actual outcomes they are trying to achieve. So they go with the same tired idea that has been bandied around for decades. They will promote that they enacted change, tout it as bold and historic, but in the end it is the same tired idea that has never been enacted despite being discussed for eons. Why has it never been enacted before? Because it… Read more »
Wayne Andrews
2 years 6 months ago

The main reason why the Principals and Superintendents are leaving is due to the uncertainty of their jobs. This uncertainty comes from the Dept of Education and the Vermont Legislature.
Any school district worth their salt are only hiring for short term commitments and those receiving those jobs are mealy doing so for stepping stone purposes.
The driving force in this is student decline so even our legislature reversely admit our attitude toward business is bad in Vermont for they feel this path we have taken will not change by 2020 the year this bill should take effect.

Skip Woodruff
2 years 6 months ago

NO..NO..NO..NO!!!!

Tom Pelham
2 years 6 months ago
It’s notable that the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA) was not asked to, or chose not to, weigh in on this matter that threatens their very existence. As Governor Dean’s Finance Commissioner during the development of Act 60, a member of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee during the passage of Act 68 (I voted against Act 68 because it did not contained effective cost controls), Tax Commissioner for the Douglas administration during the initial roll-out of Act 68 and an eight year member of a local school board, the issue of cost effective school governance has been of frequent concern. Over… Read more »
Jack Ewell
2 years 6 months ago
Tom Pelham says in a few paragraphs, with hard data all Representative Donavan, Speaker Smith and the rest of the legislature need to know about the low value of this legislation. If Donovan and Montpelier were serious about improving educational quality and managing cost, they would stop outsourcing the financing of education to communities and acknowledge the States primary constitutional role of providing education and for finance. Once they do this all silly talk about district consolidation can give way to more serious things mentioned by Mr. Pelham likely to have real and substantive impact on educational quality. For Ms.… Read more »
Dan Carver
2 years 6 months ago
Tom, You mention how the VT School Board Association was not brought into this discussion, yet from their website you find A Situational Analysis of Public Education in Vermont: 2013. They highlight on slide # 33, the extremely high number of school districts Vermont has in relationship to the number of students compared to our regional sister states. Additionally, if you listen to the accompanying audio, their analysis points out (a.) average teacher pay is lower than other New England states, yet Vermont has more teachers per pupil and (b.) our cost per pupil is driven up by non-teacher compensation.… Read more »
Tom Pelham
2 years 6 months ago
Hi Dan….My comment regarding the VSBA was specific to this VTDigger article. It seemed odd to me that an article about diminishing the power of school boards did not include a VSBA perspective. I fear that the voice of the VSBA, to its detriment, is losing its independence and being muted by the peer pressure of the state house crowd. Rep. Donovan is selling her plan premised on the expectation that education quality will be improved. I say prove it. As noted in my comment above, the preponderance of the data I’ve seen over the years does not demonstrate that… Read more »
Dan Carver
2 years 6 months ago

Tom,

Thank you for the insights and perspective.

Dan

Jack Ewell
2 years 6 months ago
Tom- Eight years ago the 2006 Kavet Report commissioned by the VBR and LCRCC provided quantifiable data on education cost and quality issues and fired the first warning shot about declining student enrollment and looming cost control challenges. We have not been short on good data so much as we have suffered from questionable or political interpretation and presentation of data by interest groups from all sides. Politicians talk about quality tools in education such as pay for performance, and other delivery models, but can those tools ever get out of the toolbox in the collective bargaining process? Things like… Read more »
John Smith
2 years 6 months ago
Tom, I think you make some good points; however I think this law is in fact a step in the right direction. The benefits are being explained incorrectly; consolidating school districts will allow small schools to share resources, most importantly teachers. This legislation will not solve the problem of increased per pupil spending resulting from smaller enrollment, rather it will enable consolidated districts to make effective decisions allocating resources to achieve this goal, at the same time increasing options for students in small districts. Your numbers are showing the difference between small districts and large districts, however these numbers are… Read more »
Seth Henry
2 years 6 months ago
This decision and vote by the committee is disturbing on many levels. First and foremost the legislature continues to conflate the public frustration with spending and tax problems with a purported desire to hand over local school control to Montpelier. I have yet to meet or hear from a private citizen who believes consolidation is the solution and that Montpelier can make it work. However, it seems widely and generally accepted in the public that the incredibly poor implementation of act 60/68 combined with expensive education mandates are driving high spending levels yet the legislative leadership refuses to touch these… Read more »
Janice Prindle
2 years 6 months ago
This is appalling. I hope it gets the attention it deserves in the mainstream media, and that the public reaction will send a strong message to stop this bill moving through the full House and Senate. There should be pushback, big time. It won’t save money. That said, the comments of other posters blaming liberals and an allegedly bad business climate for this move are beyond right field and into the bleachers, stuck in the litter. Consolidation and state control have actually been pushed by business groups and wealthy individuals like Bill Gates of Common Core. This is not a… Read more »
Kathy Nelson
2 years 6 months ago

Janice, Bill Gates created Common Core as a process to produce a standard worker/laborer drone. Gates himself has sent his two children to the same private school that produced his megalomaniac self where Common Core is not welcome. If you’re wealthy enough your kids can get the opportunity to explore their potential in education, if not then they can at least hope to achieve a standard to maintain their peasant status. I suppose Wayne Andrews would call that good for business.
If you want to see an example of Common Core absurdity check this out: http://youngcons.com/common-core-a-frustrated-parent-with-degree-in-electrical-engineering-cant-solve-his-kids-math-problem/

2 years 6 months ago
Bill Gates did not write the Common Core State Standards – unless you have some genuine evidence that he did. I also would like to point out that the number hopping exercise you (and apparently a self proclaimed electrical engineer) find so absurd is actually a process designed to help kids work out math problems in their heads. Far from being absurd it is designed to, and actually does, increase numbers based thinking. I’ve heard it generally referred to as “number sense” – you should investigate how you calculate equations. For example take any two numbers (such as 427 and… Read more »
Karl Riemer
2 years 6 months ago
says you. Mr. Webster says a liberal agenda strives for a generous, open-minded, even-handed society through governmental flexibility and experimentation, as opposed to strict deference to precedent. Trying new strategies to achieve better results is by definition liberal. Intransigent opposition to change (beautifully illustrated by the exquisitely irrational NO…NO… comment, of which the others are mere paraphrase) is by definition reactionary conservatism. There’s no inherent right/wrong good/evil dichotomy, you go ahead and believe whatever you believe, but leave the language intact. Fondly held presuppositions don’t constitute license to mislabel. Vermont today is paved with pious, obdurate, earnest conservatives who, because… Read more »
Ben Eastwood
2 years 6 months ago
There is no demonstrable improvement by making these changes. The problem is folks in charge are too hung up on cutting spending, while ignoring improving services… This is a bad idea, and does nothing new, but I stead of trying to gently tap the square pegs into round holes, it now takes a sledgehammer to our kids education. The reason for the missing school superintendents? The state has told districts not to hire full time replacements, and nobody will step up without job security. The current model IS broken, and it either needs a complete overhaul, or it needs to… Read more »
Kathy Nelson
2 years 6 months ago
A bill that could make it possible to hire teachers of Arabic and Chinese? Why? So schoolgirls can learn why they should be wearing burkas and the rest of us can learn the language of communist corruption? Get real. The purpose of this is to diminish local/municipal control. It isn’t like it hasn’t happened before. VT is a state infected by Dillon”s obsolete rule, which removes local control by communities and grants it to a corporate controlled legislature. Just look at what Sections 248 and 246 have done to prevent local people from having a say in locating extremely destructive… Read more »
Wayne Andrews
2 years 6 months ago

Let me clarify my earlier post without my morning coffee. What I meant to say was due to a bad business climate in Vermont, there are less jobs. Less jobs means less families. Less families means less children in our school and vacant buildings.

Martha Manning
2 years 6 months ago

This could be a phenomenal idea if it was coupled with reducing the number of supervisory districts at the same time. There are way too many supervisory districts in the state. If you could reduce the number of superintendents and their respective staffs then you could see considerable savings of tax dollars. With modern technology there is no reason why a superintendent can not be connected to multiple school boards to monitor questions or comment on issues. Consolidate the number of school boards yes – but reduce the number of superintendent absolutely!!!

Karl Riemer
2 years 6 months ago

If you read the article, it proposes reducing the number of supervisory union districts to zero. Is that sufficiently absolutely?

John Glasserman
2 years 6 months ago
This idea is way past due. It actually doesn’t go far enough. For the population size that our education system is required to serve, there should be ONE statewide district. When I was a child (1960s) in public school, I lived in the Miami, Florida (Dade County), area. In some way, the entire school system of Dade County was managed by a seven member school board. This school system included approximately 15 high schools along with scores of junior high and elementary schools. At that time, the population of Dade County was approximately 1,000,000. (Yes, 50 years ago, the population… Read more »
David Schoales
2 years 6 months ago

Take a look at Dade County achievement scores for your answer.

2 years 6 months ago
If one would turn over control of their children to the State, the State will take control of ones children. If one would turn over control of their childs education to the State, corporations will educate ones child, specifically for the benefit of the corporation. Ones child today is being shaped and indoctrinated into the matrix of collectivism and “trained” to bow down to corporate and Government. Sift out those children with the “highest score” who are best “trained” and most compliant and they will make good corporate types and Government employees. So, in the future, ones child will work… Read more »
Stu Lindberg
2 years 6 months ago
H. 833, the school governance restructuring bill was approved unanimously by the House education committee. This bill 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… Read more »
rosemarie jackowski
2 years 6 months ago
Congratulations to the people of North Bennington. They saw this coming. Just a couple of questions: 1. Why can’t the superintendent’s duties be consolidated. Actually, why do we need superintendents in the first place? How about one superintendent per county. 2. Why is it necessary to have 24 staff for each 100 students? (I recall that that was mentioned here a while back.) 3. Is there any guarantee that consolidation will save money? How much will the additional transportation costs be? 4. If money is an issue – and it is – why the push for Pre-K. The timing could… Read more »
Clifton Long
2 years 6 months ago

If leadership’s argument in support of this bill is based on the age of our system, does that mean we should also get rid of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?

Stu Lindberg
2 years 6 months ago

The Vermont Department of Education could be dismantled along with every supervisory union in the state. Each of our schools could operate independently with locally elected school board members with all administrative responsibilities kept in the building. What would the result of this be? Massive cost savings, complete ownership of the schools by the local stakeholders and huge improvements in student achievement. The VT DOE could be renamed the Department of Education statistics with less than a dozen employees keeping yearly records in archives.

Stu Lindberg
2 years 6 months ago
The entire Vermont Department of Education could be dismantled along with every supervisory union in the state. The changes would be almost instant and dramatic. The taxpayers would have a lot more money and our students academic achievement would improve greatly. Vermont does not have the student population or taxpayer base to support the layers of foolish bureaucracy imposed upon us by the state and federal government. Each one of our local schools could operate independently governed by their school boards and administered by their building principals. The Vermont DOE could become the office of vital educational statistics where student… Read more »
Mary Smith
2 years 6 months ago
Giving up local control of education is foolish. New York City school are under the infamous Board of Education which is cumbersome and often corrupt and does a disservice to their students. The Supervisory Union where I work however would benefit from one board not seven. Why not just eliminate all the boards in each supervisory union except one? That would be the logical way to go – one SU, one Board. Students can’t get jobs because Vermont is a socialist state and is very unfriendly to businesses. Institute a thriving capitalism, encourage businesses to come here by reducing tax… Read more »
Mark Bushnell
2 years 5 months ago

For what it’s worth, Vermont has the fourth lowest state unemployment rate as of February, 2014, the most recent month for which statistics are available.

Here is a link to the U.S. Dept. of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/web/laus/laumstrk.htm

Stu Lindberg
2 years 5 months ago

We do have a low unemployment rate for sure. Perhaps this is because so many working people have left and people that are eligible to work are on welfare or have given up looking for a job.

Wendy wilton
2 years 5 months ago
My hope is that the legislature will realize, as I testified to them, expanding public school choice is the only real way to balance the consolidation of power this bill represents. That expansion needs to include to independent schools operate as defacto public schools (North Bennington, St. Johnsbury Academy, etc…), because they are part of the fabric of public education today. If we are really concerned about local control, then give choices to parents. That will be much better than hundreds of little school boards that operate under the misguided assumption that they can actually control anything. In today’s world… Read more »
Mike Barone
2 years 5 months ago
Vermont has a lowest unemployment rate in 2014 I believe, because there are to few Vermonters left who able to afford to live in Vermont, they were born here And could not stay,” we have three children who wish they could” as there are to few family supporting incomes opportunities. The remaining are exceptional versed business people who could survive in any business environment or employed by the public tax dollars, and the remaining- remaining majority are to poorly educated who didn’t escape the dependency Vermont offers. The less successful or the ones we failed to educate yes “poorly educated”of… Read more »
John McClaughry
2 years 5 months ago
The case can be made that 256 school districts are too many for this small state. The problem with this bill is that – to seriously mix a metaphor – it is trying to rearrange the deck chairs inside the box. Because the town is the local polity of Vermonters, the multitown RED will take on the character of the multitown waste management district. The control of its service – education – will be in the hands of the “stakeholders”, not including parents and children. The out of the box solution is to reorganize Vermont into forty or so Swiss-style… Read more »
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