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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  • 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 continue with the shared model that currently exists within Supervisory Unions.

    The reality is many local boards have failed to exercise their existing ability to forge closer and more cost effective relationships with other boards, and that does cause a systemic problem. Creating larger SUs and calling them “Educational Districts” will not solve anything.

    H.883 should not pass in current form. There are quicker ways to obtain the desired results without upending every structure (just a few parts of them). It is in my opinion time for Vermont’s school boards and local communities to put forth the evidence that they can and will make the decisions necessary to provide for a quality public education that the community will financially support.

    In short all we need to do is make a few very significant changes to the duties of the SU and local boards …

    • Tom Pelham

      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 contract, administering the districts approved budget, among others.

      • In place of locally elected school boards, the House proposal creates “school-based community councils designed to build partnerships among families, staff, and the community and strong community involvement. The articles of agreement shall determine membership on the council and the process by which members are selected.” With no budget, no statutory authority, and selected rather than elected, these Councils are sure to be a weak shadow of local control.

      • The House proposal elects members to their newly created large school districts while CfV’s proposal vests with locally elected school boards the power to appoint from their membership who should represent them at the larger educational district. Thus, CfV approach directly links and empowers local school boards with managing the larger educational district.

      • The House proposal eliminates federal recognition of local school boards as the “local education agency as that term is defined in 20 U.S.C.12 § 7801(26)” while CfV’s proposal would retain such recognition.

      • The House proposal keeps the current state controlled process of raising revenues and setting property tax rates. CfV’s proposal would limit the state’s role in this regard and delegate authority to the proposed regional education districts, again comprised of representatives of local school boards. The educational districts would have the final authority to establish and allocated to school districts the voter approved budget and be empowered to raise the necessary non-state revenues to support the budget from the regional tax base. Thus, rather than sending property tax revenues to the state, via the regional education district Stowe would be sharing with Morrisville and Manchester with Bennington, for example. The state would retain only two revenue raising functions overlaid on the regional revenue collection system. These would be to ensure equity consistent with Brigham among educational districts and to raise funds to support income sensitivity. CfV’s proposal therefore diminishes the power of the golden dome and enhances the power of local and regional education districts and better aligns local property tax payers with local spending decisions.

  • Seth Henry

    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.