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Vermont School Officials: Streamline Districts

Montpelier — Vermont schools are overseen by a system of school boards built to run the one-room schoolhouses that once dotted rural crossroads, lawmakers were told Tuesday.

The House and Senate Education committees heard from a range of state and local school leaders that the state simply has too many school boards — about 285 — for a system that has fewer than 90,000 students and is shrinking.

The state has a patchwork of local and regional boards managing the roughly $1.5 billion it spends each year on public education, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe said.

“We also have lost in the last several years about 20 percent of our enrollment. We haven’t had substantive adjustments in how we staff to support that,” Holcombe said. Vermont has the second-highest per-pupil costs in the country, second to New York.

Vermont pays for school with a combination of local and statewide property taxes. The state Tax Department estimated in December that, despite declining enrollments, the state portion of the property tax in 2014 would climb by an estimated 7 cents per $100 of property value. With local tax increases added in, some communities are expected to face nearly double that.

Proposals have been floated off and on in Vermont for consolidating school districts for greater efficiency, but they have mostly been met with fierce resistance from local residents who see the school as the focal point of their community.

Lawmakers now are looking at a less drastic step: not closing schools and consolidating their districts, but at least consolidating their leadership. In Statehouse conversations, the Washington Central Supervisory Union, Union 32, often is used as an example in part because it surrounds the capital of Montpelier, though does not include the city.

Union 32’s five towns, Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester, each has its own elementary school and its own school board to manage it. The towns send representatives to the Union 32 school board, which oversees the regional high school of the same name.

Lawmakers cautioned that their ideas are far from cast in stone — a likely outcome this year is the appointment of a special board to redesign the districts by “erasing the lines” that divide the individual town districts that feed students to a union high school, said Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan, chairwoman of the House Education Committee.

The result would be a superintendent and leadership team reporting to just one board instead of six. Holcombe, Donovan and others said that would help in part because the pool of people seeking school superintendents’ jobs in Vermont is thin.

The hope among supporters of the change is that other efficiencies would follow: better coordination of curriculum in districts and sharing of resources between the feeder elementary schools.

One thing that members of the committees, as well as representatives of the Vermont School Boards Association and the state’s dominant teachers’ union agreed on Tuesday: Even if governance reforms take hold late this decade, the public should not expected quick or dramatic tax decreases.

CORRECTION

Rebecca Holcombe is the secretary of education in Vermont. Her last name was misspelled inan earlier version of this story.