Senate hands out bigger carrots for school district consolidation, strengthens supervisory union authority

Few people at the beginning of the legislative session believed that support could be galvanized to change the structure of public education in Vermont.

After Town Meeting Day when 36 school districts rejected budgets, lawmakers in the House and Senate and the Shumlin administration were spurred to do something to address rising school costs in the context of a system that has seen a 20 percent decline in school enrollments over a 15-year period.

Right up until the waning days of adjournment, school governance and the role of the state in managing the direction of public education have been the subject of dueling reform bills in the House and Senate.

The Senate rejected the House proposal to require the consolidation of the state’s 270-plus school district boards into roughly 50 new supervisory district boards over a six-year period. That bill, H.883, was sent to the Senate Rules Committee, where it is unlikely to budge.

Instead, the Senate Education and Finance committees created a package of more enticing incentives for school districts that want to voluntarily merge under Act 153. The legislation, H.876, the miscellaneous education bill, also gives supervisory unions more authority to coordinate building maintenance, purchasing and business services among school districts. There is a 1 percent tax penalty for any school district that refuses to participate in the coordinated efforts.

The more moderate approach generated a great deal of angst in the Senate on Thursday night and Friday. Many senators adamantly oppose school district consolidation of any kind, and at a caucus they remained uncomfortable with the legislation and the possibility that if the Senate passed the miscellaneous education bill, the House would tack a version of H.883 onto the legislation.

Debate on the floor, which lasted more than three hours on Friday centered on whether the incentive plan would ultimately lead to school district consolidation and whether the Legislature had spent enough time seeking public input.

But attempts to scuttle the bill failed, and a proposal to strike the incentive program and substitute it with a statewide public hearing process also was rejected. Budget-writers were concerned about the $250,000 pricetag for the hearings, which would be led by the Council on Rural Development. Other senators didn’t like the idea of replacing the incentives and changes to supervisory unions with the public hearings.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, led the effort to press for more public participation in the discussion around school district consolidation. Under his proposal, the state would spend $250,000 on a series of community meetings led by the Council on Rural Development. The process would conclude with a stakeholder meeting and recommendations to the Legislature.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, and the chair of the Senate Education Committee, supported the amendment. “Reforms, if they happen at all, happen better with public buy-in,” McCormack said.

But the money immediately became an issue, as did the idea that the Legislature would be outsourcing the public hearing process to a third party.

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, chair of Senate Appropriations, said the $250,000 is not in the Senate-passed budget bill and she didn’t think local school districts had the money to cover the cost.

Kitchel said she was also concerned that the proposal could create a “top-down structure for local conversations.” Her committee then voted the amendment down 6-1.

Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, argued that public hearings are among lawmakers’ core responsibilities. “It sends out a surrogate to do what we need to do, and it’s an excellent surrogate, but it’s still something we need to do,” MacDonald said.

Pollina eventually withdrew the amendment after extended debate.

In the end, H.876 passed, largely unchanged, but not without a few amendments, including the proposal to implement a statewide hearing process (minus the appropriation).

S.91, the so-called school “flipping” bill, was also attached to the bill. The legislation, which would put a two-year moratorium on the privatization of public schools, had been ordered to lie in the House after a controversial debate.

The House did not concur with the Senate bill last night.

The legislation gives supervisory unions the authority to do the following:

  • Adopt supervisory union-wide curriculum
  • Set uniform policies for truancy and other protocols across school districts
  • Create unified data management for school districts
  • Facilitate shared services for school personnel, including teachers and administrators
  • Consolidate business administration across school districts
  • Provide supervisory-union wide professional development
  • Manage school building maintenance and construction
  • Procure goods and services across districts

Supervisory-union wide transportation and special education services were required under previous legislation to go into effect July 1, 2014.

Under H.876, supervisory unions must also establish service regions that coordinate transportation, purchasing and professional development between supervisory unions.

Before April 1, 2015, supervisory unions must explore the possibility of a merger with at least one other neighboring supervisory union and present the Secretary of the Agency of Education with a plan for implementation or an explanation of why a merger would inhibit educational quality or efficient use of financial resources.

The voluntary school district merger incentive program gives school districts that choose to consolidate between $150,000 to $700,000.

Editor’s note: Morgan True contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: The House did not concur with the Senate on H.876.

Anne Galloway

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