Vt. School Consolidation Far Off But Still Generates Debate

Debate over whether to consolidate Vermont’s school districts and school boards appears likely to continue past the current legislative session in the statehouse.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, said even if House Bill 883, which would mandate consolidation, had been voted out onto the House floor and approved this week, the Senate would not take it up before the end of the session.

“No way can we in good conscience support anything of that magnitude without having done our due diligence and giving it a kind of thorough vetting, and ... if it got here today we’d have a week and a half,” McCormack , chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said in a phone interview Wednesday evening. “So, that ain’t going to happen.”

McCormack called education funding reform a “multi-session” effort that will likely return before legislators in some form next year. Many homeowners were incredulous during Town Meeting season at the prospect of increasing property taxes — even as many local school boards cut budgets — because of an increase in the state rate, pressuring officials to get something done.

“On one hand, it’s probably extremely frustrating for people to hear, ‘Well, not yet,’ but in fact, it’s a big project and perhaps prudence says we should go fairly slow,” McCormack said.

Meanwhile, several education officials with ties to the Upper Valley appeared to have divided attitudes toward the bill, which would eliminate 282 school districts and their school boards. About 50 supervisory districts, more or less, would take their place.

Supporters say the measure is meant to streamline governance and cut down on ever-increasing education costs as student populations continue to decline. Detractors fear a loss of local control and the potential for schools to close, while wondering whether those actions would actually yield significant savings for taxpayers.

The bill was passed out of the House Education Committee more than a month ago and has since been taken up by the Finance and Appropriations committees, but has yet to be voted on by the full House. It appeared to be picking up steam in recent weeks, as leading Democrats increased their calls for something to get done.

McCormack called himself an “agnostic” on the issue — “I’m not persuaded, although perhaps I could be,” he said — but raised several concerns about what he considered to be the bill’s unknowns, including actual savings.

“It’s not going to save that much” on education spending, McCormack said. “You’ll have fewer superintendents and more assistant superintendents, you’ll have fewer offices and those offices will be bigger. ... There’s a certain amount of work that has to be done.”

He also said the bill could come with a “price to be paid,” such as students spending more time on school buses to get to farther-away schools that are less intimate.

“Schools are not going to know kids as well as in the smaller schools,” he said.

Geo Honigford, an eight-year veteran of the South Royalton School Board and an associate representative on the Vermont School Boards Association Board of Directors, discounted such fears. A supporter of consolidation, Honigford said he wasn’t sure if H.883 was “exactly the perfect bill,” but said it included no “deal-breakers.” He strongly agreed with its overall idea.

“For us small schools, we need to cooperate better,” Honigford said. “We talk about cooperation, but ultimately, we haven’t been really great at (cooperating). This will bring us to the table, once we go under one board.”

He estimated that Orange Windsor Supervisory Union Superintendent David Bickford spends at least a third of his time just managing the district’s six boards, so he’s “not even working on straight educational issues.”

“It makes no sense from a pure governance point of view, it makes the job almost impossible,” he said.

On an educational side, Honigford said, consolidated school districts could potentially “enhance curriculum” by offering a broader variety of courses to students, such as foreign languages, because students could move around within the district.

Four former commissioners of education for Vermont also wrote a recent op-ed in support of the bill, suggesting that the state’s governance system is out of date.

But others, including Hartland School Board Chairwoman Bettina Read and Sharon School Board Chairman Don Shaw, remain unconvinced. Both districts have school choice, meaning the town pays tuition for students to attend the high schools of their choice in surrounding towns.

Shaw said there were “too many unknowns to give (the bill) support” as it’s currently worded, raising concerns about the wording related to school choice and how the governing body would be designed.

Read echoed questions about whether the bill would save money, and said she didn’t see “any benefit at all” for Hartland’s supervisory union, Windsor Southeast.

“The way it’s written right now, I’m against it,” she said. “I don’t think it solves any problems; there are problems in education specifically with funding, but I don’t think it addresses that. ... We already collaborate to save money, so that’s not going to be of any help to us. I see it being more of a problem because they’re calling for one school board and one budget for the entire district,” which she said could quickly become complicated and confusing for voters in each town of the district.

Hartland voters are currently presented with a roughly $8 million budget, and if the bill passed, “we’d be bringing them somewhere in the realm of a $30 million budget covering all the schools,” she said.

Honigford said a critical piece of the bill is that it “isn’t prescriptive in terms of how it tells you to set up your educational district; it leaves that up to the communities who are deciding.” The bill is not about closing small schools — “at least (not) to me,” he said.

He said instead of closing, some schools could be refocused to serve a particular cohort of students, for example a science-focused school and an arts-focused school, or a kindergarten through third grade and a sixth grade through ninth grade.

“If you take a small school with 50 kids and another small school with 50 kids and combine them, you still have a small school,” he said, “and yet you may now have the critical mass” to offer courses you couldn’t offer before.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.