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.”
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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.
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.
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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 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.
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