Senate hands out bigger carrots for school district consolidation, strengthens supervisory union authority

Few people at the beginning of the legislative session believed that support could be galvanized to change the structure of public education in Vermont.

After Town Meeting Day when 36 school districts rejected budgets, lawmakers in the House and Senate and the Shumlin administration were spurred to do something to address rising school costs in the context of a system that has seen a 20 percent decline in school enrollments over a 15-year period.

Right up until the waning days of adjournment, school governance and the role of the state in managing the direction of public education have been the subject of dueling reform bills in the House and Senate.

The Senate rejected the House proposal to require the consolidation of the state’s 270-plus school district boards into roughly 50 new supervisory district boards over a six-year period. That bill, H.883, was sent to the Senate Rules Committee, where it is unlikely to budge.

Instead, the Senate Education and Finance committees created a package of more enticing incentives for school districts that want to voluntarily merge under Act 153. The legislation, H.876, the miscellaneous education bill, also gives supervisory unions more authority to coordinate building maintenance, purchasing and business services among school districts. There is a 1 percent tax penalty for any school district that refuses to participate in the coordinated efforts.

The more moderate approach generated a great deal of angst in the Senate on Thursday night and Friday. Many senators adamantly oppose school district consolidation of any kind, and at a caucus they remained uncomfortable with the legislation and the possibility that if the Senate passed the miscellaneous education bill, the House would tack a version of H.883 onto the legislation.

Debate on the floor, which lasted more than three hours on Friday centered on whether the incentive plan would ultimately lead to school district consolidation and whether the Legislature had spent enough time seeking public input.

But attempts to scuttle the bill failed, and a proposal to strike the incentive program and substitute it with a statewide public hearing process also was rejected. Budget-writers were concerned about the $250,000 pricetag for the hearings, which would be led by the Council on Rural Development. Other senators didn’t like the idea of replacing the incentives and changes to supervisory unions with the public hearings.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, led the effort to press for more public participation in the discussion around school district consolidation. Under his proposal, the state would spend $250,000 on a series of community meetings led by the Council on Rural Development. The process would conclude with a stakeholder meeting and recommendations to the Legislature.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, and the chair of the Senate Education Committee, supported the amendment. “Reforms, if they happen at all, happen better with public buy-in,” McCormack said.

But the money immediately became an issue, as did the idea that the Legislature would be outsourcing the public hearing process to a third party.

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, chair of Senate Appropriations, said the $250,000 is not in the Senate-passed budget bill and she didn’t think local school districts had the money to cover the cost.

Kitchel said she was also concerned that the proposal could create a “top-down structure for local conversations.” Her committee then voted the amendment down 6-1.

Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, argued that public hearings are among lawmakers’ core responsibilities. “It sends out a surrogate to do what we need to do, and it’s an excellent surrogate, but it’s still something we need to do,” MacDonald said.

Pollina eventually withdrew the amendment after extended debate.

In the end, H.876 passed, largely unchanged, but not without a few amendments, including the proposal to implement a statewide hearing process (minus the appropriation).

S.91, the so-called school “flipping” bill, was also attached to the bill. The legislation, which would put a two-year moratorium on the privatization of public schools, had been ordered to lie in the House after a controversial debate.

The House did not concur with the Senate bill last night.

The legislation gives supervisory unions the authority to do the following:

  • Adopt supervisory union-wide curriculum
  • Set uniform policies for truancy and other protocols across school districts
  • Create unified data management for school districts
  • Facilitate shared services for school personnel, including teachers and administrators
  • Consolidate business administration across school districts
  • Provide supervisory-union wide professional development
  • Manage school building maintenance and construction
  • Procure goods and services across districts

Supervisory-union wide transportation and special education services were required under previous legislation to go into effect July 1, 2014.

Under H.876, supervisory unions must also establish service regions that coordinate transportation, purchasing and professional development between supervisory unions.

Before April 1, 2015, supervisory unions must explore the possibility of a merger with at least one other neighboring supervisory union and present the Secretary of the Agency of Education with a plan for implementation or an explanation of why a merger would inhibit educational quality or efficient use of financial resources.

The voluntary school district merger incentive program gives school districts that choose to consolidate between $150,000 to $700,000.

Editor’s note: Morgan True contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: The House did not concur with the Senate on H.876.

Anne Galloway

Comments

  1. Janice Prindle :

    The Senate approach of helping schools coordinate business services and purchasing makes a lot of sense compared to consolidation, which would replace elected unpaid public servants, responsive to their communities, with well-paid, state-appointed professional bureaucrats and a host of salaried administrators, with no need to be responsive to the communities they oversee–under the guise of “saving money.” Hah.

  2. John Freitag :

    The challenge we all face is how do we keep the best of Vermont’s past while meeting the needs of the future. Many thanks to the Vermont Senate for putting the brakes on a hastily put together school consolidation bill. As a School Facilities Manager for the last 31 years, I look forward to seeing the details of the passed legislation and how it might be best implemented in a way that uses local and regional resources most effectively.
    It should be noted that much work, that many legislators may not be aware, has already been done. This includes a statewide contracts for building supplies and group purchasing options for oil and propane initiated by Facilities Managers and Business Managers as well as statewide staff training workshops.
    At some point we will need to address the real driver of costs and time for school boards. A huge amount of time spent both by teachers and school boards on negotiating contracts and whether a statewide teachers contract ( with allowances for different cost of living depending on where you live in the state) might be worth considering in future discussions regarding consolidation.
    John Freitag

  3. Don Webster :

    Thanks for your reporting on this important story about what happened with school consolidation, but I think it omits what I believe is the key difference between the House and Senate versions. The House would eliminate the existence of local school boards. The Senate version, which prevailed, would preserve them.

    My thank you to the Senate and those in the House who put up a good fight for local leadership in our schools.

  4. Shayne Spence :

    In the article, you say “Late last night, the House concurred with H. 876.” I am unable to find any record of this in yesterday’s Journal, and H. 876 is currently on today’s Notice Calendar. Are you sure it actually passed the House?

    • You are right, Shayne. I misread the calendar. I have corrected the story.

  5. victor ialeggio :

    “Kitchel said she was also concerned that the proposal could create a “top-down structure for local conversations.”

    So, better to have no conversation at all and establish new guidelines by diktat. Although not a single legislator ran on the idea of consolidation in the last election. There will hell to pay over the summer and next autumn for those legislators who don’t think the input of their constituents concerning education policy is of any importance.

    S91 remains a sharp stick in the eye of any district sick tired of waiting for something, for anything, of imaginative substance to come out of either chamber, in terms education funding. Calling it the “flipping bill” is indicative of little more than the gestalt of a real estate agent; it certainly does not describe the thoughtful experiment (note: “experiment”) undertaken by the North Bennington Grade School last year.

  6. Dave Bellini :

    “…There will hell to pay over the summer and next autumn for those legislators…”
    .
    Vermonters usually vote for the incumbent regardless of party or policy. I think some legislators were getting nervous so they backed off forcing consolidation, at least until a non-election year.

  7. Howard Ires :

    The state can’t seem to do anything except pass the buck and re-arrange the deck chairs.

    Watch what happens now. Who’s going to pay for all these new duties the Superintendents office’s will acquire with the passage of this bill? Curriculum. Technology. Manage construction. Purchase supplies? As the supervisory unions merge and grow bigger these tasks will only get more difficult and expensive.

    This is classic buck passing by Montpelier. If there is really going to be any savings these tasks need to be managed on a state wide basis. Why isn’t there a state wide curriculum? Why not a state payroll office? Why isn’t the state managing construction of schools? Why isn’t there state wide technology standards? Consolidating 50 payroll systems into 30 doesn’t save much, consolidating 50 into 1 does.

    Local school boards don’t want or need to deal with these issues. They should be concerned with hiring the best teachers and staff and negotiating the best contract with them.

  8. Peter Berger :

    I’m pretty sure, based on the school boards I know and have worked for, that in addition to crafting their school’s budget, which they see as their responsibility, and hiring the best staff, both powers they would have lost under this term’s education bills, they very much want to deal with their school’s curriculum and the instructional aspects of their children’s education. The staff, teachers, and principal who deliver that instruction can best respond to and be best superintended by citizens with a real interest in the education of their town’s children. The only thing worse than exporting more of those decisions and more of that power to the superintendent’s office would be exporting them to the Agency of Education. This has nothing to do with the good or bad intentions of agency staff. The fact is, though, that state level bureaucrats and policymakers are the least acquainted with both classroom reality and the aspirations of parents and townspeople.

    • Howard Ires :

      I am not advocating for a MANDATORY state curriculum, just a state curriculum. Creating a good curriculum is a lot of work, it takes a lot of time. and effort. If there was a good state wide curriculum local boards could modify and improve on it if they wished, but if it was good I suspect most districts and teachers would accept it. If they didn’t that would be a different problem for a different time.

      Right now the current “crises” is that education costs are too high – which is a phony crises because public education is still running at HALF the cost of a good private school. Never the less, if cutting costs is the priority then we have to look at where the money is going. The largest assessments after teacher salaries are administrative salaries and transportation costs. If admin was centralized in Montpelier and yellow school buses were replaced by public transportation for all we would see a dramatic drop in cost per pupil expenses.

  9. Peter Berger :

    I appreciate that you’re not advocating a mandatory statewide curricula. We’ve already had, though, and continue to live under a succession of what amount to statewide curricula, including the 1990s Vermont Common Core of Learning, the Vermont State Standards, the Grade Level Expectations (GLEs), which were rechristened with fanfare the Grade Expectations (GEs) for reasons that have always escaped me, and now Bill Gates’s Common Core. All include some common sense but are generously corrupted by the irrelevant, the unrealistic, and the arbitrary.

    The supervisory union where I’m employed ran for a decade or so without a superintendent. Each town’s school principal served as his town’s superintendent, and all the supervisory union towns contributed toward the maintenance of a central business office. This seems to me a format where towns with only one school, meaning most Vermont towns, can share nuts and bolts expenses and enjoy economies of scale without maintaining superfluous administrators to coordinate curricula among towns that have nothing in common besides the fact that they arbitrarily share a superintendent. The state’s current core, standards, or expectations are a more than sufficient statewide curricular guideline.

    While it wouldn’t address our school funding system problems, it would save money and offer local control. It would require, however, that the state rescind many of its counterproductive mandates and exhaustive demands for paperwork, which would be a positive development both financially and educationally.

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