Vilaseca: Current school system is inefficient and inequitable

“I recommend as a state that we seriously consider redistricting to reduce the number of districts and supervisory unions.”

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Armando Vilaseca, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Education.

No one could argue with the fact that our state is facing significant financial hardship. My own department has cut staff by 20 percent over the last 18 months, and schools are being asked to significantly reduce spending. Something must be done to change the course of education spending in Vermont . I believe there is a way to save local taxpayers and the state millions of dollars a year in education spending for years to come, and to continue to give Vermont students the outstanding education our state is known for.

We have one school board member for every 70 students. We have school buildings, with their operational budget, staffing and transportation costs, that house fewer students altogether than would be in a single classroom at our larger schools. We have 280 school districts, several with their own transportation, food service, and employee contracts. We have 87 school districts with fewer than 100 students. It is unrealistic to operate under a system that is over one hundred years old but is expected to produce 21st century results. If we are to see any improvement in education costs, this system must change. I recommend as a state that we seriously consider redistricting to reduce the number of districts and supervisory unions.

As an educator who has worked in many Vermont districts over the past 26 years, I have observed firsthand the inefficiencies and inequities of our current system. These inequities, and the duplication of so many services, raise the cost of education but do not improve the quality of the educational experience for our children.

I believe we need to reduce the number of schools based on size of student body and geography.”

Many sincere individuals are concerned that a reduction in the number of school districts in the state would represent a loss of local control. To a certain extent this is a legitimate concern. However, state and federal testing and licensing rules, the increased requirements for special education and other special services, a statewide property tax to help pay for education and other legal parameters all minimize the control over the major issues related to operating a school district. Ultimately, our current system costs more and does not deliver the results I expect and I feel are possible.

Another concern I hear regarding redistricting is that schools and communities have different needs and wants for their students. But I have found that all communities want the same things from their local schools: safe and nurturing environments, high academic and social standards, positive leadership, a strong teaching staff and a responsible budget. Yet minor “differences” are used to justify keeping the system the same.

Let me be clear: This is not a new idea, nor is it a popular one. The former education commissioner wrote a document outlining his plan in 2007, and held thirty public meetings across the state to hear directly from Vermonters. A 2008 Snelling Center Survey found that a majority of Vermonters polled believed that governance in Vermont is too complicated, and favored consolidation of school districts. Each time the subject is brought forth, lawmakers, school board members and educational leaders refused to consider any change to the system.

The federal Stimulus package bought us some time. But that is a short-term fix to a long-term problem. I believe we need to reduce the number of schools based on size of student body and geography. That would bring savings in terms of staff and school building operations. I believe we need to reduce the number of supervisory unions. That would eliminate administrators, teachers and staff, and would force more effective and efficient operations of districts. Contracts would cover a larger number of people and systems (food, transportation, special education). My staff and I estimate this would save the state several million dollars a year. That may seem a drop in the bucket, but it would continue for years to come, and would improve the delivery of education and services to Vermont students.

And isn’t that really what we all want? We want our students to have an excellent education. We want our students in classrooms headed by the best teachers in the state. We want our students prepared for colleges, careers and citizenship. A more streamlined delivery of education would continue to provide this, but with far greater impact per dollar. Striking a balance between what our pockets can pay for and what our children deserve is possible.

Armando Vilaseca is Vermont’s commissioner of education.

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