Report critical of school consolidation rebutted by state officials

Education Sec. Rebecca Holcombe testifies before the House Education Committee on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. Photo by Amy Ash Nixon/VTDigger
Education Sec. Rebecca Holcombe testifies before the House Education Committee on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. Photo by Amy Ash Nixon/VTDigger
A report critical of school consolidation created a stir before the researchers even got to the Statehouse.

State officials took issue with a report written by two Vermonters who are doctoral candidates at Penn State University, and rebutted it in a page-by-page analysis before the researchers arrived on Thursday to present scheduled testimony.

Researchers Daniella Hall and Ian Burfoot-Rochford say school consolidation will not solve Vermont’s educational system challenges and they argue that small schools “are one of the state’s strengths, not a problem, and should be capitalized to sustain local communities.”

The researchers, who both have taught in small, rural, New England schools, Burfoot-Rochford at the Cabot School and Hall in Maine, take a dim view of forced consolidation in their report, but note that voluntary consolidations in communities can have successful outcomes. Hall and Burfoot-Rochford propose tiered funding of the Small Schools Grants, which they say will help to build school and community capacity.

Read the Penn State policy brief

Read the Agency of Education’s rebuttal

Hall and Burfoot-Rochford urged lawmakers to adopt legislation that takes into account “the role of rural schools in stabilizing their encompassing communities; the value of smaller schools in supporting low-income students and families; (and) increasing data collection and transparency to facilitate informed decision making for schools and communities.”

Rebecca Holcombe, the secretary of the Agency of Education, and Wendy Geller, the agency’s data administration director, say the policy brief from the Penn State researchers misrepresents peer-reviewed research on school consolidation and it relies on a “narrow undertanding of what governance involves, appears unacquainted with existing data on Vermont, and fails to acknowledge the diversity of circumstances small towns in our state experience.”

Holcombe and Geller say the Penn State brief to the Legislature “suggests that research on consolidation does not support the current conversation Vermont is trying to have about how to provide high-quality opportunities for our children at an affordable price, in a way that reflects the values and priorities of our communities.”

The Penn State study relies on national definitions that set the bar for small school district enrollments at 275 or less. All of Vermont’s school districts are small to medium-sized, according to Holcombe and Geller. Nearly 70 percent of Vermont school districts have enrollments of 300 or fewer students. About half have an average daily membership of 100 or fewer students. The peer-reviewed literature on district consolidation shows there are efficiencies to be gained when districts have 1,500 students or more.

The state is encouraging school districts to merge and is leaving school consolidation and closure decisions up to local communities, Holcombe has said.

“The challenge in Vermont is that, given our finite resources, declining student base, and declining number of taxpayers, we are left with the question of how we can support all those ends in a way we can actually afford,” Holcombe said in the commentary.

Holcombe said while the report accurately describes the strong connection between schools and communities, she dismissed the idea of competitive small school grants because it would pit tiny schools that have no local resources against schools in commmunities that have more economic means.

The researchers said they are not economists or financial experts, but are rural education specialists who have devoted their doctoral work to the study, and they were presenting their proposal from that vantage, but did not have dollar figures to accompany their proposal.

The Penn State team offered a rebuttal to the Agency of Education in testimony before House and Senate Education Committees on Thursday.

“The AOE argues district consolidation has been found to have financial benefits due to economies of scale,” Hall and Burfoot-Rochford said in a joint response. “Our stance, however, is that empirical evidence for the economic benefits of consolidation are inconsistent. Through our policy brief, we highlight some of the potential pitfalls of consolidation, including unanticipated costs. The researchers say closing small schools will harm student achievement and cause econmomic damage to communities.

Hall said Vermont has some very successful small schools, and “I’ve come to realize that some of the best schools in the nation are in Vermont, and I wanted to find out what makes them so successful.”

Hall said their research has attempted to analyze why some schools are “extremely successful in eliminating the achievement gap” while other schools are struggling to do so.

Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, asked the researchers, “Did you start out this study with your own belief and attempt to prove your belief?”

Hall said they started wide open to possibilities, but said, “We are rural educators, so we obviously come from that side; we like rural schools.”

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  • Jay Eshelman

    Re: Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, asked the researchers, “Did you start out this study with your own belief and attempt to prove your belief?”

    This is a valid question and one that should be asked of Mr. Wright, Secretary Holcombe and Data Administration Director Geller as well. Clearly, what we have here are a bunch of education special interest groups grousing to protect their own turf.

    Isn’t it interesting that none of these proposals and critiques, with the exception of the Penn State study, recognize the importance of parental participation in this process.

    There is no question in my mind that, in education, different folks use different strokes, and that small schools, especially in a ‘tuitioned’ environment, can provide as diverse a curricula as a larger school and, in instances where tuitioning is not ‘designated’, actually increase curricula diversity – all while decreasing the cost per student for Regular Education as well as Special Education.

    In short: Beware the fox (the Legislature and the Agency of Education) guarding the chicken coup – especially if you’re a chicken, …err, I mean a parent.

  • Bill Olenick

    More centralized big government power grabs underway here…
    Keep is local.

  • Brent Betit

    Is it just me or does this rush to rebuttal seem
    just a tad defensive?

    I still vividly recall James Garfield’s famed conception: “My definition of a university is Mark Hopins on one end of a log and a student on the other.”

    Hopkins – president of Williams College for 36 years – also has a Vermont connection: the “serial college founder” Walter Hendricks founded Mark Hopkins College in Brattleboro Vermont, which closed just one year prior to Windham College in Putney. Hendricks also founded Marlboro, which remains operating.

    President Garfield’s point is that what matters most is the educator – not the size, not the sheer number of resources, not the consolidation or number of things and teachers, but their quality. If you want a perfect example of this, ask Governor Shumlin to recount the story of the teacher who essentially saved his educational life and placed him on course for his remarkable career.

    One of the key Vermont values is that individuals matter. I hope these young researchers receive a fair hearing before they are pilloried in the legislature. I’m not arguing for or against consolidation but I do care about reasoned debate and mannered discourse. This story smacks rather of David being blindsided by Goliath while he’s still looking for his slingshot.

    • Ruth Barton

      For clarification let me say Dr. Hendricks also started Windham College, in his home across the road from the public grade school I attended.

  • Tom Sullivan

    Two years ago, the town of Cabot voted to close the high school with a student body of only 65 students. In the end, the town decided to keep the high school, but got handed an 11% property tax increase, and approved the 3.6 million dollar school budget for the small town of Cabot.

    So if this is what Burfoot-Rochford of Cabot is advocating for, I would urge lawmakers to think twice.

    • Jay Eshelman

      Mr. Sullivan: Interesting. I read the 3-5-13 VT Digger article. But something is amiss.

      Re” Meanwhile, Cabot would shell out $890,881 for tuition costs for 65 students; at the same time, the town would lose $149,291, which it currently receives in tuition payment from out-of-town students who attend Cabot’s high school.


      Re: ” The board concluded that closing the high school would, in fact, increase education spending by roughly $500,000.”

      For 65 students, the tuitioned cost ($890,881 divided by 65) is $13,705 per student – the State’s Average Allowable Tuition. If that’s $500,000 more than keeping the high school open, that means the cost per student when keeping the high school open could be accomplished for $6012/student.

      Not a chance.

      And there is more than one way to ‘close’ a school, yet keep it open. Check out this VT Digger article.

      • Tom Sullivan

        Hey Jay, Thanks for your response.

        Sure, less infrastructure and staff with a slightly longer bus ride to a neighboring district always yields a $500,000 increase in spending, which is almost 60% of Cabot’s original budget .
        But more important, what are the residents receiving for their 11% tax increase?

        From the attached article:

        “Brigitte Codling, one of the Cabot parents behind the petition, said she is one of a growing number of parents who are dissatisfied with the quality of education at Cabot. Codling said she pulled four of her children out of the school when she realized how unprepared her eldest daughter was for college after graduating from the high school in Cabot”.

        A bigger school isn’t always better, but the same argument can be made for smaller schools.

  • Bruce Lierman

    Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, asked the researchers, “Did you start out this study with your own belief and attempt to prove your belief?”
    It would seem fair to ask the same question of Secretary Holcombe.

  • John McClaughry

    As a young legislator in 1970 I tried to get the State to fund a modest study – something like $10k if memory serves – to determine whether large consolidated schools or small rural schools produced better educational outcomes. Gov. Davis agreed but Commissioner Harvey Scribner, whose gospel was “get rid of small schools”, fiercely resisted, and finally the Governor backed off. When Scribner ran out of things to ruin, he decamped for NY City as Chancellor, where after a year he was fired.

    • Moshe Braner

      As they say, “never let mere facts get in the way of a good theory” 🙂

  • Wayne Andrews

    If approximately 80% of a school budget is salary and benefit orientated does the Vermont Ed Dept really think the higher paid teachers are going to lower down to the lower paid scale if a forced consolidation? Hell no….
    The taxpayers know site well the lower paid are going to be up lifted into the higher pay scale. Now Ms. Holcombe how about a digger response to this “cost saving” move of consolidation?

  • Walter Cooper

    Unintended consequences: in smaller, wealthier towns, the Act creates both high mil rates and lots of non-sensitized payers. These folks get personally soaked while their schools are under pressure to shrink .

    Such folks–especially if they are younger–are incentivized to move. Then the school shrinks even more, and general ed revenues go down as these upper middle income earners depart VT. Last few years this has accelerated in Vermont.

    Property tax has no business being a shadow income tax, and towns should draw revenue locally in direct correlation to their local schools’ needs. That’s how schools in a small, decentralized, and rural state survive.

    The Act is killing small town schools–even wealthier ones. Yes, general demographics don’t help, but the Act is fuel on the fire.

    The reality is a state with many who don’t feel the pinch of the Act–both the truly middle class sensitized whom I don’t begrudge, and gazillionaires with their properties in Current Use.

    The rarest of rare VT species–the working professional with kids, with decent income but few assets—is getting crushed. And that bodes very poorly for public revenue in the future.

  • Mary Alice Bisbee

    As some one who attended a very small elementary school in the 1940’s and 50’s, I know full well all the education I really missed! Of course, things are very different now, particularly in so called “gold” towns, but what about Cabot? Other small schools without wealthy tax payers to make up the difference?
    Seems to me, that one way to solve this challenging dilemma, may be to go back to having a very small pre-school through 4th grade local school when children need to be near their parents and start sending to consolidated schools at around 5th grade. I guess it is the way federal and state money grants are handed out that really makes the difference. And what about the teachers that are willing to teach in a very small school? They are either going to be very highly qualified self starters wanting to just
    get their feet wet for a few years or aging long time teachers who are willing to take low pay for working until their retirement.
    Are these the values that should be dictating our school decisions?.
    When there were only 7 students in my Waitsfield High School class and no variety of classes or well trained teachers, I attended Montpelier High School for my last two years and my father paid tuition for me to attend. While this was a great new experience for me, I do wish it had come earlier in my education so I would not have had such real adjustment difficulties later on, particularly in college and adult life…

    • You and I would seem to be from the same era.

      My own early primary grades were at a parochial school where I was able to learn as well as being educated to think like a catholic. Transitioning to the public school system, the experience was mostly a learning one but the education aspect was more subtle, becoming more evident following the transition to high school where the teachers were more openly disposed toward educating us — impressing personal views and opinions on our impressionable minds. My experience tracing my five children through school was that it (the “education”) had only gotten more intense.

      With all the politically correct “education” occurring these days, could it be that the overload leaves no room for actual learning? Inquiring minds want to know.

    • james willey

      Missing from this discussion seems to be any reference to this previous article posted on Digger last summer:

      It’s all about local control of schools, and why it is still a good idea.

  • james willey

    I’m curious, and at the same time puzzled, as to why the subject of home schooling has not entered this discussion. Could lack of motivation have anything to do with that?

    I know that I would be giving it serious thought if I still had school age children, especially in light of the intrusive long fingers of the NEA.

    • Phil Lovely

      Thank you, James, for raising this question. I am curious as to the number of homeschoolers currently and their distribution by district. I know that the number is significant and explains some of the thousands of public school students who have gone away. Out-migration, private prep, home study have competed with falling birth rates to shrink enrollment statewide.

      This could spark a discussion about what and under what conditions, could be done to make public schools more competitive.

      I live in a small NEK community with a K-12 school that is humming with good teachers, active parents, engaged students achieving good outcomes. Graduates are getting accepted into their 1st choice colleges or going to work. The community has rallied around this historic school and supported bonds and budgets to rebuild and refurbish its buildings into state of the art energy efficient units providing both comfort for learners and savings to taxpayers. It is a school well worth fighting for and a model for management worth studying.

  • Jay Eshelman

    FYI – The Penn State folks have rebutted the State’s rebuttal. I can’t wait for VT Digger to report on it. It’s a great read.

  • Wayne Andrews

    Missing from these Dept of Ed reports are:

    Teachers contracts
    Dept of Ed consolidations
    The concept of no new school mandates
    Forced retirement for employees
    What happens to the vacate schools if consolidated?
    Projections on future busing contracts
    Geographic hardships thus making school consolidation more difficult
    Why more inservice days?
    Last, the use of electronic media to allow for webinars and Vermont Interactive TV type devices to limit travel for all those conferences.

  • Santina Huskey

    For those who don’t wish to consolidate there are options.

    Homeschool or closing your public school and privatizing it.

    Closing a public school and Re-opening as a private school takes time and planning but its been done in Vermont before . There’s a great piece on how to do it.

    For homeschooling there’s Oak Meadows distance learning in Vermont as one option . There’s plenty more. You can also create your own homeschool plan but Vermont requires you to send it in for approval.

    It is possible with a low student enrollment to move to homeschooling with the town using their own local talents to have “classes” on various subjects for enrichment.

    I’m sure there’s many talented people in each community that could run a class on a subject or teach a craft or skill.

    For those who work and need the 5 day coverage of a school a daycare based in the community could be started . Use the school
    Perhaps the town residents could volunteer hours of coverage as they have free time available decreasing the cost of daycare for families.

    If a community with a small school wants to merge then all is well but for those facing forced consolidations then perhaps its time to look into alternatives so they can be thoughtfully implemented and reflect the towns values and needs.

    I have not used Oak Meadows Personally Just exploring my options. I don’t want to bus my daughter long distance to another school if our school is forced to consolidate.

    Just a question for those talking of forced school consolidations. Just how much parental involvement do you think you’d see with the children’s new school?

    I’m sure lots of tired parents after working 8 hours would love to drive an hour to the new consolidated school for a parent teacher conference, attend a sports event or attend a fund raiser. Not!

  • Santina Huskey

    Another study on school consolidations with a great deal of information including initial spike in costs as the schools consolidate and time frame before any savings materialize.