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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  • Ralph Pace

    While this is not a new recommendation, it is one that, should Vermont continue to ignore it, will ultimately reduce the quality of education provided to our students while dramatically increasing the cost of that education. Each year school boards face the task of presenting an acceptable budget to the voters and each year something substantive to providing education is cut, diluted, or minimized. As for local control, it is becoming a myth as state and federal regulations remove viable controls from the individual districts.

  • Laura Sibilia

    Commissioner – where are the projections that support your proposal?

    How do you intend to handle this proposal differently so that we don’t end up with the problems you’ve been presented on Maine’s consolidation? Like the no savings problem.

    If small schools are driving up costs, how do you explain the 34% cumulative increases in Vermont’s largest school district the past 4 years?

    Do you have data that shows that Vermont will be able to continue to have high quality educational outcomes if you close small schools?

    Do you think it’s equitable that towns who send five times more then what they spend to the state education fund, should have to do without arts, music, or sports, while towns that receive more from the state then they collect provide those programs?

    Have you looked at your data which shows almost no difference between small and extra large school per pupil spending? Where exactly is the savings going to come from?

    Exactly how will your proposal impact the economies of the towns you close schools in? Will it impact work force, businesses, property values, second homeowner populations? These are all things we rely on to fund education.

    You need to start providing these types of answers to validate your proposal.

  • I agree that something must change, but shouldn’t we look first at places where dramatic school changes have worked in order to prevent ourselves from growing pains? What about more parent involvement when it comes to school politics? I have worked in local schools and learned that much school politics is based on a hierarchical structure, which leaves little space for questioning and change. How about start working on these structures so all people involved in the school communities are treated and listened to equally?

  • Mary C. Gagnon

    Thank you to VT Digger for touching on this issue. I am trying to learn more about the possible benefits of consolidating smaller schools. As my son is off to college now, I find my involvement in the local school scene is lessened. I am, however, involved with a Transition Town group which is looking at the impact dwindling fossil fuel availability could have on our communities. When communities are deciding the futures of their schools, let’s encourage them to consider that, in the future, we may not find it as feasible as we now do(even when faced with today’s relatively high fuel prices)to transport our children long distances to educate them .
    Also, schools in smaller communities often house the only local library available to that community, as well as serving other functions which provide a “community center”. Along with the Post Office and (if they are lucky enough to have one) a general store, the small town schools provide that meeting, greeting, info.-sharing spot which is so vital to the town’s sense of being a community.
    The Transition Town model would encourage: Co-operative use of the “extra” space, if the school is larger than the community needs for their current enrollment; finding ways to become more efficient and self-sustaining in their energy use/production; involving the whole community in finding solutions, not just parents of current students, school staff, teachers and board members; among other things too numerous to mention here. It is hard work and effort to do this, but by not doing it we could be faced with even more confusing dilemmas in the future. Dilemmas which could be lessened by being forward looking and proactive in our solutions, not simply finding stop-gap-type immediate solutions to problems that leave the potential for even bigger problems for the next generation of students, their parents, and all the other tax paying members of their community and state.

  • Retta Dunlap

    Vermont needs to achieve a 15:1 student to teacher ratio. In some cases this will require that a school look at education differently as this may span multiple grades. The way in which children are taught and teachers are trained needs to be looked at. We are in the 21st century now. The way kids learn these days in some ways is different than they did in years past when you consider that a computer key board can give you the knowledge of the world. (Some rote learning is still necessary.)

    Vermont has too many layers of bureaucracy involved in micromanaging what goes on in classrooms. In addition there is little real local control left. Vermont needs to focus on accountability from both students and teachers in the areas of outcomes rather than seat time. Students are passed from grade to grade simply because they sat in the seat all year. Teachers are paid more each year simply because they were in front of a classroom all year long. Neither students and teachers are not held accountable for learning. While this might work for most children it does not for the lower 30% of students. They are not doing well at all. This is not acceptable. Children who are poorly educated can end up costing Vermonters much more money latter on.

    More money will not fix any of this. What we need is a different system of providing education that is more transparent, better at controlling costs, and provides kids with what THEY need.

    Larger regional districts could accomplish less bureaucracy, higher ratios, allow for innovation in 21st learning, a focus on outcomes rather than inputs, and provide a better focus on the lower 30% of students. The current system is old and has not been able to keep up. Its structure is simply to expensive to keep.

    It is time to transform education into something that fits the needs of children in a cost effective manner rather than the needs of buildings, budgets, and imaginary boundary lines on a map.

  • Consolidation is what got us into the financial crises – in which, we continue to pay for “too big to fail”.

    Please don’t send us down that road, looking for illusory “economies of scale”.

    This is, after all, the future of our society that we’re talking about. And our children. We owe them – and ourselves – more.

    The central problem in consolidation is that there is a decreasingly small number of people making decisions for an increasingly large number of people – that they are insulated from and have little interest in. Time and again, we have seen that this results in decisions that are good for the few in control and bad for everyone else.

    In a smaller group, when one must make a decision – publicly – that affects ones nearby neighbors, the quality of that decision rises – as well as its speed and efficacy.

    Smaller is – as has been proven again and again – better. One need only look to our state itself, for a shining example.

    – Marc

  • Retta Dunlap

    Smaller is indeed better – smaller schools that is. There is such a thing as too small, I suppose. There are two words that get mixed together. Consolidation and regionalization. Consolidation means to many people to close all small schools and put kids in bigger fewer schools. This is not the direction that regionalization would take Vermont.

    Parents needs school choice to balance out centralization and a loss of local control. There are certain features that can be centralized but the staff running these schools and the parents who choose them need decentralization. They do not need to be told how to do everything. Let them be creative. I.e. they need the freedom to create the kind of education the kids in the schools need.

    The regionalized part would expect them to produce quality and hold them accountable for it.

    I am not talking about taking the current supervisory union power structure and creating only 16 SUs —- I would vote NO. TO have bigger more of the same would not help children or the taxpayer.

    I am not talking about consolidation of the current power structure. I am talking about replacing it with a model that has certain (and fewer) centralized pieces and decentralized pieces like teacher actually have control over their school and classrooms and parents can choose the school their children go to whether that be public or an approved independent.

  • David Jaqua

    Commissioner Vilaseca,

    Congratulations for speaking the truth. The facts are indisputable.

    The opponents to change will fight with every excuse necessary to preserve the status quo, until they have no other choice, which is shameful. By then the pain will be truly great.

    On the current trajectory Vermont in 2014 will have 88 thousand pupils and $1.8 billion of total spending (schools, DOE, retirement), that is more than $20 thousand in total spending per pupil. Vermont simply cannot sustain that in addition to fulfilling all of the other obligations.

    The numbers simply will not add up, not with all of the other obligations and challenges.

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