Campaign for Vermont says state could save $160 million through consolidation of supervisory unions

Bruce Lisman. VTD/Josh Larkin

Bruce Lisman. VTD/Josh Larkin

Campaign for Vermont, a conservative advocacy group based in Montpelier, has set a high-minded goal — to make Vermont’s education system among the top five in the world.

That objective, however, hinges on freeing up $160 million in the system. In a 16-page white paper authored by former tax commissioner Tom Pelham, the organization makes the case that consolidating school districts, cutting back on administrative costs, and increasing school choice can save enough money to fund programs such as universal preschool and raises in teachers’ salaries.

Campaign for Vermont, which describes itself as a nonpartisan 501(c)4 organization advocating for “pragmatic” ways to strengthening the state’s economy, released its education policy proposal on Monday.

Bruce Lisman, co-founder of Campaign for Vermont, said much of the plan relies on ideas that have been around for a while, but he thinks the state is at a point where they are “ready to be activated.”

The report can be found here:

The proposal calls for doing away with most of Vermont’s 64 supervisory unions and replacing them with 15 “Education Districts,” an idea that was first proposed in 2006 by Richard Cate, the former education commissioner who served during Republican Gov. Jim Douglas’ tenure in office.

In this scenario, the current level of local control and the state’s role would both diminish. Instead, the new education districts would be responsible for setting budgets and collecting the statewide property tax, for example.

Pelham, co-founder of Campaign for Vermont, said the state would be more of a “cheerleader for excellence, but not driving that excellence through mandates.”

Each of the 15 districts would be overseen by a board made up of local school board members, whose representation would be proportional to the population of the local districts. These district boards would take over many functions that currently fall within the domain of either local school boards or the state — budget proposals and union negotiations would all be in their purview.

The group envisions stripping the state of its role as primary distributor of property tax revenue to schools. Instead, each “Education District” would be charged with this task, and the statewide property tax would be used only to even out any imbalances that emerge across districts. Campaign for Vermont says their plan stays true to the spirit of the Vermont Supreme Court’s Brigham decision, mandating equal access to education for students, but it relegates this responsibility to the district level.

The proposal’s other recommendations include expanding school choice within districts and de-linking the state’s income sensitivity program— which gives Vermonters the option of paying education taxes on income rather than property — from property tax rates to “enhance transparency” about the program’s expenditures. The plan also calls for a teacher and principal evaluation system and recommends raising teacher salaries by an average of 20 percent for those who make the grade.

Lisman said that while Campaign for Vermont isn’t explicitly advocating for increasing the student-teacher ratio and forcing smaller schools into extinction, this “may result as a natural consequence” of the consolidation of supervisory unions.

The $160 million figure is based on the difference in spending per pupil between Vermont and Massachusetts. Lisman and Pelham say they selected Massachusetts as the benchmark for comparison because it has one of the highest-ranked education systems in the nation. The proposal does not provide specific estimates on how much each of the initiatives would contribute to realizing the $160 million in savings.

In 2010, a task force called the “Education Challenge Design Team,” created by Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca to identify costs-saving opportunities, examined the savings potential of reducing the number of school districts from 289 to 49 while maintaining the same supervisory union structure. The department’s chief financial officer, Bill Talbott, said transitioning to this model would save the state $13 million to $17 million a year.

Campaign for Vermont said they are prepared to do what it takes to make sure their ideas gain traction and their efforts may include advertising and marketing. The Campaign is a 501(c)4 organization, and it is not required under the law to reveal how much money it raises or spends on advocacy campaigns.

Alicia Freese

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  • Howard Ires

    I thought this idea went out the door with Douglas. This is just another dumb “conservative” financial fantasy. More vague “savings” that would never materialize. We’re going to make our schools better by spending less on them. Yeah, right.

    This would wreck one of the best public education systems in the country – Vermonts! The Massachusetts model doesn’t fit Vermont, our towns are too small and we like having local control of our schools. If Douglas couldn’t make this happen there’s no way it’s going to happen now with the Dems firmly in control.

  • When we talk about “local control” we need to understand the legal structure/governance model Vermont has: the state legislature with the approval of the governor has primary control via Vermont statute Title 16 (including a mandate to follow all federal law). Much of the legislature’s specific rule making authority is delegated to the now Agency of Education and State Board of Education (VSBE).

    Make no mistake – the mandates passed down from the state legislature (and the feds via the state requirement) bolstered by the rules set by the VSBE define the greatest part of our schools’ activities and costs. As more decision making has been centralized up the ladder things have become increasingly expensive – NOT, as the above paper would claim, less!

    Local school boards are left with true control (to decide the existence or non-existence of a program) over extremely little; and with implementation of the common core curriculum even less. But outside of special education there is one area that your local schools do have immediate and ongoing control over: the specific policies that implement the mandates from above – and this is where the importance of local control comes in …

    The bulk of the recent and current information regarding efficacy of education tells us that the best education for our primary and secondary students will be that delivered closest to the individual student and in a flexible manner. The breadth of knowledge required to meet the real and perceived demands of government, business and society has expanded to such that rote learning in classrooms of well lined desks cannot meet the need. Modern communications has opened up processes that allow access to educational experiences well beyond the physical walls of a school. If you’re old enough to have taken a correspondence course – think of that at high speed with far greater assets. For those of you in your thirties or younger you need no elucidation on this.

    Policy and educational decision making needs to occur as close to the individual student level as practical – period. For some this ideal means home schooling; for others it’s differentiated learning pathways – but it must be provided in a responsive manner.

    A blatant lie in the above paper is the pretension to respecting local control. Local control exists when the surrounding community has to easy access to and effective influence over those who make and implement policy – it is very different from local input to be ignored from a distance. Right now the people of Williamstown have as much local control as the law allows: a town-wide preK-12 district overseen by a local board. If Williamstown were to consolidate into a larger district the town’s immediate and effective access to the policy process would diminish to a fraction of what it is now – parents would have much less say so over their children’s education and the community would have much less say so over monetary and other matters.

    And the policy making and implementation that impacts the day to day education of an individual student would be moved farther from that student. That loss of local control would not be a good thing at all.

    All these claims about saving money by consolidation assume one thing. This assumption is that folks are not working full days (plus) at their jobs whether in SUs or districts. The truth is you could consolidate the Orange North SU with any other SU, and we would still need the same people performing the same functions – there is no staffing slack. And where there have been administrative cost savings available districts already have or are now moving to implement those. The Orange North SU did so a decade ago.

    Unless a real reduction in the need for administration is brought forward there can be no reduction in administration – consolidation will only require higher paid district heads with more assistants that will have the same responsibilities that now exist with superintendents. That’s a fact.

    The cost savings guessed at by Campaign for Vermont are illusory.

    There is a better path forward. This better path expands true local control and puts the policy making and implementation directly in the classrooms with local community and parent oversight: teacher run schools see Education|Evolving ( for a good starting point. Teacher’s will divert resources from the less important things to those items that impact the students the most. Teacher’s will build flexibility into policy that takes us into the realm of individual student needs. And with elected community oversight and input true local control can be.

    PS. Recently educators from China have visited several Vermont schools, and the response has been how to bring the Vermont model back to China. There has been no mention of bringing the China model to Vermont.

    • Karl Riemer

      “All these claims about saving money by consolidation assume one thing. This assumption is that folks are not working full days (plus) at their jobs”
      That is false. The assumption is that folks are hard at work, doing the same job in different places, needlessly duplicating each others’ effort. The assumption is that the same processes, decisions, paperwork and record-keeping are replicated across the state, not differently in different places but identically, redundantly. The assumption is that the same people could perform the same functions more efficiently if each decision, each task, applied to more students, because some tasks take exactly the same amount of effort whether applied to 1000 students or 200,000, and some take more effort, but none takes 200 times as much effort.

      Economy of scale, efficiency of specialization, rate of return on capital investment and the inherent disadvantage of perseverating over every chore are not esoteric concepts. The assumption that consolidation reduces redundancy, increases professional specialization, justifies more sophisticated automation and generally more accurately matches effort required to purpose served is logically and empirically familiar to all of us. It may be incorrect in this case, but pretending to misunderstand the premise does not disprove it.

      While we’re at it, because it’s essentially the same argument:
      “As more decision making has been centralized up the ladder things have become increasingly expensive – NOT, as the above paper would claim, less!”
      As is so frequently the case, the question is less cost than relative rates of increase of cost. Saying things have become increasingly expensive says nothing useful and suggests purposeful misdirection. Comparing the rate of increase, how much more or how much less the cost would have risen otherwise, is useful.
      “Policy and educational decision making needs to occur as close to the individual student level as practical – period.”
      is a statement of conviction, not fact. It may be based on sound argument and solid evidence. It may feel right. It may be right. But it is not self-evident, it is not axiomatic, it is not elevated to factuality through punctuation. It is one hypothesis, or perhaps merely one assumption of a hypothesis.

      I realize this is an opinion forum. My opinion is that we’ll hear better if we differentiate between proof and supposition, between data and determination, between evidence and faith. Believing something fiercely doesn’t make it true, and doesn’t excuse fallacy.

      • Karl, I would argue you are mistaking function for effort. As a trivial example: If you and I both have to dig a trench to replace water lines to our respective abodes, then you and I will be duplicating functions (digging a trench) – but we most certainly will not be duplicating effort. We would find no increased efficiency by having only one of us do the work – as a matter of fact we would lose a tremendous amount of efficiency due to the need for travel, lack of direct knowledge of both sites and more.

        Functions are certainly duplicated across Supervisory Unions, but that is because Supervisory Unions perform many of the same functions. But there is little (if any) duplication of effort across SU lines: the business matters still must be attended to in a detailed fashion by on-site business managers; curriculum development and staff training still needs to occur where the staff are; school specific data still needs to be entered; and on and on.

        Sure – you could consolidate SUs and have fewer Superintendents, but as Superintendents are rarely, if ever, living a leisurely life at work you would still need to have people performing the same day to day face to face functions. In other words a higher priced Superintendent (due to larger SU) overseeing the same number of assistant Superintendents (most likely paid comparable to what Superintendents get today) as we have Superintendents right now.

        Regarding the increase in costs – it is in part the report that is the subject of this article I am responding to – and that report makes a point about the high angled increase in educational costs for Vermont. And that high angle of increase does nicely correspond to consolidation of policy making authorities.

        As for the last part of your comment: please read the paragraph above where I put that line – context really does matter.

  • Julie Hansen

    Act 153 was passed in 2010 (with strong Democratic support) encouraging schools to consider a “voluntary” merger of districts. The idea was presented in the “Opportunity to Learn” document published in 2009 and has been gaining traction ever since. I am not so sanguine as Mr. Ires above; Vermont’s economic circumstances will drive much of this discussion, not educational excellence. Talk to your legislators regularly if you don’t want this to become law.

  • Bob Stannard

    Nothing like an old idea to allow my old friend, Tom Pelham, to write a 16-page report.

    It was former Speaker of the House, and teacher and liberal Democrat, Ralph Wright, who teamed up with former liberal Democratic Governor, Phil Hoff, to advocate for reducing the districts down to 5 districts. That was back in the ’90’s.

    It was unpopular, but probably a good idea back then. It died under their leadership. I doubt the non-partisan, Republican think tank, CFV, will get it done. It is, however, a nice issue for them to use to raise their profile; to what end, who knows?

  • rosemarie jackowski

    This makes me like ‘home schooling’. Class size one to one. Very local control.

    The State and the Feds control of education should be limited… very limited.

    I have taught on and off since 1956 in schools from Vermont to Florida. The one thing the best schools had in common was that they were all small and controlled locally.

    The cost of education could be cut by capping administrative salaries.

    • Cheryl Pariseau

      You state “The cost of education could be cut by capping administrative salaries.” I’m curious as to why only administrative salaries. Why not all school salaries?

      • rosemarie jackowski

        In some districts the lunch lady might deserve a raise.

    • Tom Whitesell

      The voice of experience. Thank you Rosemarie!

    • Eileen Foster

      I would love to see data on how “consolidation” improves academic outcomes. Does CFV have this to offer?

      The argument put forth is that consolidation would save money. Yet, nothing is said about the quality of the educational experience or the academic improvements. This is likely due to the fact that there is zero gain for students and their families.. and therefore, the larger community.

      Small schools not only add to the high quality of life we enjoy here in Vermont, but study after study indicates that small schools enjoy higher academic outcomes.

      We have great schools. Local control is worth keeping.

  • Hannah Smith

    Seriously, why on earth would we listen to a former executive of Bear Stearns (Bruce Lisman)…remember back in 2007 and 2008 when they tanked the economy at OUR expense?

    Yeah, clearly that guy knows how to better run our education system than our local communities. Duh.

  • walter moses

    Cheryl, perhaps because most supervisory unions in VT are top heavy with administration. I would like to see every SU’s personnel list from department heads on up with salaries published. Then compare that with actual teacher’s pay and compare the results. Also, compare the fixed costs on the office space and equipment for the administration and that of the classrooms where kids are actually learning.

    • Walter – the contracts for all staff, district or SU, is public information.

    • For the record: it is my experience that SUs are NOT “top heavy with administration”. I have found that SUs are staffed at the necessary levels to perform their functions, and where there has been or is places to trim they do so so money can be redirected to direct instruction or student supports.

  • Dave Bellini

    I don’t understand the Campaign For Vermont. Just because many, many, millions of dollars could be saved by consolidation, doesn’t mean the majority of Vermonters want to do it. Half the population doesn’t bother to vote, so they don’t care one way or the other. The majority of citizens who vote are against consolidation, against larger class size, against staff reductions and in favor of the current model, even if it is expensive. Talk about beating a dead horse! School budgets sail through every year. School spending is a sacred cow. Give it up CFV, it’s not changing.

  • Kristin Sohlstrom

    Consolidation is a communist concept. Familiarize yourself with the Communist Manifesto. Consolidation promotes top-down government. America and Vermont is a bottom-up society where the individual is the most important first. Not good. Not good at all.

    What this will ultimately do is remove the individual’s voice in education because the goal is to limit the amount of school boards.

    Additionally, I will tell you that being a resident of a town that consolidated 5 schools into one almost 20 years ago, our property taxes have increased every year since. It’s a ruse, folks. Barre City has been the test tube and it’s failed because of our current SHARED property tax system.

    • Eric Bradford

      “Consolidation is a communist concept.”

      Exactly! There should be a separate school for each child. When will people finally understand this?

      • Eileen Foster

        People do understand this… they call it “homeschooling.”

  • Aaron Cornelius

    I teach in a small rural school, and I do believe it is important to promote both quality and affordability in schools (and there is not always an automatic connection between higher costs and better quality). However, Vermont is not well poised to exploit the cost savings this plan suggests can be achieved.

    First, teacher are paid much less in Vermont than in Massachusetts, but our student teacher ratio is only a little lower. The savings in the Massachusetts model must be coming from another source, and my guess is it comes from administrative and operational savings due to the larger size of Massachusetts schools. Vermont’s rural character makes this hard to adopt.

    We have tried to create larger schools, but are the big multi-town union school districts a better model? I’d like to see a study that compares (using real data) the benefits of union schools versus town run schools. My guess, based on observation and experience, is that students in smaller town run schools fare better emotionally and socially, which can impact academic performance. If so, are the modest cost savings of large union schools worth it?

  • Laura Sibilia

    There are virtually no savings in larger schools to be found with the current Vermont funding mechanism. It is surprising that more folks don’t check the existing data on spending against the concept. You can do so here:

    It should also be said that no where are dollars connected with desired outcomes for students.(including CFV’s not new proposal)

  • kevin lawrence

    Aaron– I like your point about the larger union schools having a disconnect for their imported students. I’ve worked in schools that bus kids for 60 minutes one-way. The kids do not feel the love that kids get in small schools. It’s not “their” school; it becomes a place and an experience where getting recognition and acceptance comes very slowly, if at all. If a kid is lucky they have recognized talent (sports, theatre, academics, etc) where they can bloom, but average young folks instead have to fight their way through the social scene to establish identity and individuality. It’s very disorienting to be in a disfunctional union school and leads to horrible social and academic outcomes.

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