Tom Pelham: Barking up the wrong tree

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Tom Pelham, formerly finance commissioner in the Dean administration, tax commissioner in the Douglas administration, a state representative, and a co-founder of Campaign for Vermont. He was a member of the Calais School Board for eight years.

H.883, a bill that would reduce the total number of municipal school districts to around 60 or so by 2020, was voted out of the House Education Committee unanimously and will likely be on the House floor soon. Yet, concerns have been voiced in commentaries by Heidi Spear, chair of the Fayston Elementary School Board, and Debra Stoleroff, the Renaissance Program director at Twinfield Union School in Plainfield, among others.

Supporters of H.883 contend, without offering any evidence, that larger school districts will enhance educational outcomes for children. Yet, analysis conducted jointly by the Tax and Education Departments in 2006 found no statistical relationship between student assessment scores and school district enrollment size. Further, the more recent Picus Report, commissioned by the Legislature, offered insight into successful school districts, large and small. The 11 key variables Picus found as “the pathway for producing increases in learning for all students, regardless of their family background” were qualities such as educator talent, professional school culture, and strong leadership. Notably, school district size was not among them. Picus also found, “In addition to our findings pertaining to those eleven key themes, we also note that all five schools had significant outreach to parents and the community, and sought as much parent involvement in the school as possible.” Large school districts and parent involvement are not a friendly mix.

The burden is on the House Education Committee to provide the definitive Vermont specific data that shows Vermont’s smaller school districts have student outcomes statistically inferior to those of large school districts. Having already passed this bill, such basic analysis should exist on the committee’s website, but does not. Yet, the raw data of assessment results by school district size exists at the Agency of Education, making such statistical relational analysis readily doable. If such an analysis exists, Reps. Donovan or Peltz or other members of the committee can post it here. Put the data on VTDigger so we can all see and discuss it and be convinced that the committee’s governance proposal is well grounded in the best interest of students’ educational outcomes who now attend small schools.

Rather than remain on the sidelines, the Vermont School Boards Association should separate itself from the pack of Statehouse education lobbyists to play a leadership role in this important public conversation, especially given that the very existence of local school boards is at risk.


Vermont’s traditional school districts can be sustained, but must change to do so. Vermont’s high and still growing per pupil spending is a problem that is eroding support for our schools and must be addressed. Local school districts must find a better balance of sharing power within a larger, more regional management structure where the roles of school districts and those of a complementary regional management structure are crystal clear, well defined and cost effective.

Rather than remain on the sidelines, the Vermont School Boards Association should separate itself from the pack of Statehouse education lobbyists to play a leadership role in this important public conversation, especially given that the very existence of local school boards is at risk. Regional budgeting and revenue raising, transportation management, teacher contract negotiations, special education collaborations, the purchasing of supplies and equipment, consolidation of AP classes, and standards for leadership and classroom talent, among others functions, can be more cost effectively done at a regional level.

However, local school districts should retain control of areas most important to local parents and their students, such as the hiring and assignment of talent, managing the school schedule, nurturing a positive school culture, ensuring school facilities are in good repair, overseeing contract implementation and teacher evaluations, and guiding the regional management entity. And, when necessary, make the difficult decisions as to whether their local school district remains cost effective.

As a template for change, Campaign for Vermont’s Putting Children First proposal (see pages 11-16 most specifically) is much better aligned with the values of school boards, local control and enhanced educational outcomes than the House proposal.

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3 Comments on "Tom Pelham: Barking up the wrong tree"


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2 years 9 months ago
Tom, you do realize that your “Putting Children First” proposal and H.883 are the same beast in different words, don’t you? There is one obvious exception. On the bottom of page 11 of the CFV proposal we find the line “Local/union school boards would share budgetary, staffing and facility management functions with the ED, managed by an administrative staff reporting to the ED board. ” Those are some of the areas that Superintendents and Business Mangers are telling us (with a great deal of evidence) can provide for economic efficiencies from consolidation. On the other hand you are proposing we… Read more »
Tom Pelham
2 years 9 months ago
Hello Rama….your above observation is far off the mark. There are striking differences between Campaign for Vermont’s education reform proposal and that of the House Education Committee. Here are just a few and as you will see, they seek to make our education system less muddled and less expensive while sustaining local control. • The House proposal statutorily eliminates local school boards and creates new large school districts. The CfV proposal retains locally elected school boards under Title 16 with specific statutory powers important to parents, students and taxpayers such as hiring staff, managing the teacher performance components of the… Read more »
Seth Henry
2 years 9 months ago

Thank You Tom,

In my opinion this article bears extra weight given Mr Pelham’s background. As such his request for more planning, transparency and public engagement say a lot about how H.883 is being done. Perhaps that is why it seems to have almost no support from the general public.

My position on this is very simple. Our leaders have no authority to touch education until they show us they are serious about ed funding. The ed funding mess is the cause of much of the pain that the magic pixie dust of H.883 is supposed to address.

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