[V]ermonters support the idea of reducing the number of local school boards by consolidating them into larger, regional systems, a new poll indicates.
A VTDigger/Castleton Polling Institute survey found that 48 percent of respondents approve of school board consolidation while 42 percent are opposed.
Those surveyed strongly oppose the elimination of small school grants and oppose using the state income tax to help pay for public schools.
The poll of 700 Vermonters was conducted Feb. 9-24 (see sidebar for methodology).
The results come as the Vermont Legislature grapples with the continuing decline in enrollment in public schools, which has fallen by more than 21,000 pupils since 1997 and is predicted to continue decreasing through at least 2030. Lawmakers have focused ways to reduce rising school property taxes while maintaining equal educational opportunities for students.
Backlash from taxpayers last year was evidenced when nearly three dozen school budgets were defeated. Just as voters head to the polls on Town Meeting Day to decide on next year’s school budgets, the House Education Committee completed work on its finance reform bill H.361.
The survey shows that 60 percent oppose the elimination of subsidies to the state’s smallest schools and 28 percent support the idea.
In every demographic category, more than half opposed cutting small schools grants — among younger people, age 18-44, 68 percent opposed the idea now under legislative review; among those with post-secondary education, 64 percent opposed it; and women opposed it at 64 percent compared to men at 55 percent; 64 percent of Democrats opposed the move compared to 55 percent for Republicans.
Of the move toward larger integrated school systems, men support the step slightly, 52 percent in favor, 39 percent opposed, while women were divided, 45 percent in favor, and 45 percent against.
Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the responses to the income tax question and the move to consolidate schools into regional systems are similar to what legislators have heard.
“At least two of them are so close, I’m not sure they are even statistically viable,” said Cummings of the poll’s findings.
That closeness — on both those questions — 44 percent of the respondents being in favor to shifting “some of the costs of supporting schools to the income tax” to help fund education and 50 percent opposed, with 7 percent unsure — is close to what Cummings said the Legislature has heard.
Cummings said the results on small schools grants were a surprise.
“I would expect more of a 50 to 50 split,” she said.
She said the divide in the results echoes the complexity of the education reform problem.
“It’s hard, there is no clear path,” she said “There is no silver bullet. It is very complicated.” There is no clear consensus from constituents about what should be done and why, Cummings said.
Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe welcomed the results on the income tax question.
“I am relieved for the lack of support for moving to an income tax to support education,” she said. “This has proved an unstable way to support education.”
Stephen Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, said the responses on school board consolidation mirror those of his organization.
The divide among respondents to the poll “reflects what our experience is with our own membership,” he said.
The results roughly reflect school board members’ opinions on phasing out small schools grants, too, Dale said.
“Our membership is split,” Dale said. “Two-thirds of our districts don’t get them (the grants), and wonder why we are subsidizing small schools. And a third feel (the schools that do get them) feel like it was part of the original deal of Act 60.”
“It’s surprising to me that there’s overwhelming opposition to reducing support for small schools,” said Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, chairman of the House Education Committee.
Rep. Alice Miller, D-Shaftsbury, a member of the House Education Committee, said she was not surprised to see the high level of support for continuing small schools support.
Miller pointed out that women supported the preservation of small school assistance much more strongly than men did — 64 percent of women oppose cuts to small schools.
The results showing high support for continuation of small schools support indicate that “people realize that community schools are very important.”
“Schools are the hubs of the community, that’s where lots of things happen,” Miller said.
Rep. Kevin “Coach” Christie, D-Hartford, ranking member of the House Education Committee, said the split on larger school districts is in part due to fear of school closings. The legislation does not recommend the elimination of schools.
“That whole term, ‘consolidation,’ kind of has a rancor to it; I like when the secretary (of the Agency of Education, Rebecca Holcombe) spoke with us and called it collaboration,” Christie said. “We chose this word (consolidation) and everyone freaks out.”