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Bill Would Reorganize Vt. Schools

Members of the Vermont House Education Committee are planning to draft a bill that would reshape the state’s century-old system of school governance, a proposal that likely would do away with supervisory unions and reduce the number of school districts in an effort to improve education quality and rein in costs.

Under an outline drawn up last week and posted on the committee’s website, the bill would enable Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe to name a team of experts to design a new system of governance that would group towns into larger preK-12 education systems, each of which would operate as a single district. Although the bill is likely to go through many drafts, the outline says that by July 1, 2019, the state’s supervisory unions would “cease to exist.”

“This is the beginning of something really transformative,” said Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, a member of the Education Committee.

Exactly what the new system would look like would be up to the “design team” and local school officials, who would have time to to work together to form new districts. “There are some people who would like (the state) to go down to 15 or 16 school districts,” Buxton said. “I get the sense that we’ll probably end up envisioning 30 to 40 school districts around the state,” she added.

“Right now we’re really just looking at broad-stroke ideas,” said state Rep. Peter Peltz, D-Woodbury, vice chairman of the Education Committee.

Holcombe will testify before the committee this morning, and in the afternoon, a group of school superintendents will address the committee about school governance. By the end of the week, the committee hopes to have a draft bill in hand. A final bill would need to clear the full House by March 13 to be considered by the state Senate.

Vermont’s school system has nearly 280 school districts and 300 public schools, a system that has existed in more or less the same form for 100 years, according to a plan written by then Commissioner of Education Richard Cate in 2006. In the 1890s, lawmakers reduced the number of school districts from more than 2,500 to fewer than 300, roughly the current number.

The system of supervisory unions, intended to provide skilled oversight of school districts, was put into place around the turn of the last century and by 1912, there were 55 supervisory unions, about 10 more than there are now.

Consolidation has been discussed many times over the past few decades to little effect, but Vermont is facing what many consider a financial crisis in public education. Since 1996, the state’s public school enrollment has declined from around 105,000 to around 85,000. At the same time, school staffing has remained relatively constant and school spending has steadily risen.

Vermont’s cost per pupil has nearly doubled, rising from $9,800 in 2002 to more than $18,500 in 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

While Vermont students are regularly at the top on standardized tests — not only among states but also globally — policymakers note that the state sends a relatively small share of public school students on to higher education and that an achievement gap persists between students and those who are better off. Lawmakers see an opportunity to address both cost and quality by redesigning the state’s educational governance.

For example, every year as much as 25 percent of superintendents step down, and schools sometimes struggle to retain principals. Many superintendents attend multiple school board meetings, cutting into the time and energy needed to improve schools. The turnover in leadership makes it hard for schools to make progress in improving teaching and learning, both Buxton and Peltz said.

“We’re being encouraged, because at the local level there’s serious concern about our delivery model,” Peltz said.

Changing school governance has been discussed and rejected for decades. It was brought up by Democratic governors Phil Hoff and Madeleine Kunin, and more recently, by Cate in 2006.

But interest in what wholesale change might hold seems to be more widespread than during previous discussions. The Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association produced a report last year that detailed the many issues facing school districts.

Neither organization has taken a position on the proposed legislation, but the issues facing the education system are legitimate and the conversation about solutions is welcome, said Stephen Dale, executive director of the school boards association.

“Our organization will be addressing this over the course of the next couple of weeks,” Dale said Monday. “It will be essential that school boards be engaged in any process like this.”

The report by the two associations, which was presented to the Education Committee last month, was “a first,” Peltz said.

“I think that from those who have been at this for a while that this is an opportunity that cannot be squandered and is certainly worth our scrutiny,” Peltz said.

A pair of education conferences last month brought together people who concentrate on school finance and school policy, Peltz said.

“I think that has really contributed to a much more comprehensive look at education,” he said.

Efforts to encourage school districts to consolidate on their own have borne little fruit. The state’s strong history of local control over small schools has always turned back proposals to change school governance, but with enrollment projected to continue to decline, and cost per pupil to increase, Peltz said the time has come to move forward “in the best interest of kids.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.