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School Notes: In Vermont, Senate to Discuss School Consolidation

Regardless of the intent of the legislation the Vermont House Education Committee is working on to reshape the state’s school governance, a particular word has already attached itself to it: consolidation.

Ever since the 1890s, when Vermont lawmakers instituted the current system of school governance, proposals to change it have been tagged with that word. It stands to reason: Vermont has 280 or so school districts for around 85,000 students and spends more per pupil than every state but New York. Under the many previous plans, the guiding principle held that cutting down on the number of school districts would save money.

But this plan is meant to be different, said Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, a member of the House Education Committee.

“We’re really stuck in this cycle of rehashing old ideas,” Buxton said last week. Her committee is aiming to draft a bill this week and vote it out in time for it to be considered by the state Senate.

As its currently worded, the bill would establish a committee that would study how best to structure governance of the state’s public education system, then design a system to be implemented by the end of the decade.

In the latest draft, the bill calls the new school districts “expanded prekindergarten-grade 12 districts.” Buxton said she would like the debate on the bill to focus not on schools but on students.

“As a system and as a society — we must shift from measuring the value of education by the success of schools and instead focus on the success of students,” Buxton wrote in a recent newsletter to her constituents.

So even with school property taxes climbing and a large number of school districts voting down their school budgets, cost is not the primary driver of the new legislation. Rather, Buxton said, the aim of the bill is to create an “educational delivery system” that “maximizes student opportunity within the available resources.”

This isn’t exactly the direction the debate has taken. Opponents of the idea say that no matter what the bill intends to do, some schools will be closed or consolidated.

With enrollment continuing to decline, schools are already closing. In recent years, elementary schools in Plymouth, Granville and Hancock, Vt., have had to close as student numbers declined and tax rates rose to unsustainable levels. Communities with small schools, particularly small high schools, have been weighing whether to combine with other neighboring schools.

“I really feel that we need to do some serious thinking about consolidating some of this stuff,” Bethel resident Rosalie Benson said at her town’s annual school district meeting last week.

“We really need to consolidate,” fellow resident Ola O’Dell said. “We have a big building and few children in it. We need to think about the best education we can get for the least money.”

“Until we can all have that same conversation,” Buxton said, “my expectation is that the bill ... it’s going to move a little bit slower.”

State Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, chairs the Senate Education Committee, which started taking testimony on school governance in the last week of February. Although he has his doubts about the efficacy of the plan, he said he thinks it’s likely the bill will see daylight this term.

“My position is that I’m skeptical,” McCormack said. He’s not against the legislation, but he said he is “not convinced” that it will lead to a school system that works better and costs less.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for this,” he said of the House bill, but acknowledged that he’s not the only skeptic on his committee, which could put the brakes on.

He also noted that at the very least Vermont is overdue for reconsideration of its school funding system. Act 60 was passed in 1997, and prior to that the state changed its funding plan every 10 years or so.

∎ Another piece of Vermont legislation that would have influenced local schools has fallen by the wayside. S.91, which was intended to level the playing field between public schools and independent schools that accept public funding attached to school-choice students, isn’t going to pass this year, McCormack said.

“We have gotten a great deal of pushback from independent schools,” McCormack said.

The local schools it would have affected most were The Sharon Academy, an independent secondary school, and surrounding public schools that compete with it for tuition students. Public school advocates argued that The Sharon Academy has an unfair advantage in attracting tuition students, since it doesn’t have to follow the same rules regarding special education and other federal and state requirements that public schools do.

Representatives of the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont Independent Schools Association were asked to negotiate a compromise, but were unable to do so, McCormack said.

In a way, this debate is another outgrowth of the state’s declining school enrollments. When enrollments were growing, in the 1990s, a school like The Sharon Academy didn’t create a drag on public schools’ ability to bring in enough tuition students. In the current era of scarcity, every tuition student represents much-needed revenue.

“Receiving schools are tuition-hungry right now,” McCormack said.

Expanding Access

The Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich is expanding its Warm Welcome program, which makes the museum more accessible to low-income families.

The museum is now offering $2 admission and $15 memberships to any family who shows an EBT or Medicaid Card, or a letter confirming their participation in the federal Free or Reduced Price School Meals Program. A regular one-day pass costs $14 for adults and $11 for children.

The expansion of the program, which began in late January, was done after conversations with human service providers, families and schools. Dozens of families have taken advantage of the new opportunities to visit, the museum said in a news release.

“I am very grateful to everyone who provided feedback and advice in the development of this initiative,” said Jennifer Rickards, the museum’s associate director. “We are delighted that so many local families are excited about the opportunity to visit and engage with the Montshire.”

This new initiative has been made possible with support from the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation.

Student Honors

Several Upper Valley middle and high school students were inducted into the American Junior Academy of Science during the annual symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. They received distinguished awards for their original peer-reviewed scientific research, which they presented to the scientific community as delegates of the New Hampshire Junior Academy of Science. The students so honored include: Ethan Adner, Gabrielle Curtis, Brandon Pettee and Chase Ryan-Embry of Crossroads Academy in Lyme; Katie Axelrod, of Richmond Middle School in Hanover; Alexis Chapman, Grace Griggs, Stephanie Pipas, Ariel Silver and Eleanor Pschirrer-West, of Kimball Union Academy in Meriden.

∎ Lebanon High School has been placed on the AP District Honor Roll for the second year in a row. The honor roll consists of 477 school districts in the United States and Canada that simultaneously achieved increases in access to Advanced Placement courses for a broader number of students and also maintained or improved the rate at which their AP students earned scores of 3 or higher on an AP Exam. Lebanon is one of eight New Hampshire school districts to earn a place on the honor roll this year.

∎ Hanover residents Matthew B. Beach and Kelsie D. Hogue were named to the Dean’s List at Boston University for the Fall semester.

∎ Alexandra Vutech, a Woodstock resident, was named to the 2013 fall semester Dean’s List at Simmons College in Boston.

∎ Plainfield resident Rebecca Young was named to the fall Dean’s List at University of Maine at Farmington.

∎ Simone Serat, of Hanover, was named to the Arts and Sciences Dean’t List at Duke University in Durham, N.C., for the fall semester.

∎ Hartford High School graduate Benjamin Pfister has been named to the Dean’s List for the fall semester at The College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahsonson@vnews.com, or 603-727-3219. Send School Notes announcements to schoolnotes@vnews.com.