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Editorial: District Consolidation in Vermont

Members of the Vermont House Committee on Education are busy promoting a bill that would eliminate the state’s supervisory unions and reduce the number of school districts from 282 to 45. The legislation, which the committee overwhelmingly approved March 21, calls for regional districts, each governed by a single board that would represent no fewer than four municipalities and 1,200 students. Each municipality in an expanded district would elect one representative to serve on a board responsible for a single operating budget.

If this sounds like a radical departure from Vermont’s current school governance structure, it is. The consolidation of districts and school boards would, in essence, redefine local control as regional control, depriving individual towns of the autonomy they now enjoy to determine school budgets and curricular programs.

Proponents say district realignment is necessary mainly to increase educational opportunities for students, many of whom are at a disadvantage in small rural schools lacking resources. Consolidation, they argue, would build coherence in areas now governed by multiple boards and allow for collaborations that would benefit students and teachers. “We believe that the current structure, with its substantial inequities, multiple small governing units and conflicting lines of authority, makes it too difficult for our schools to work together coherently to support our ambitious goals for our students,” states the bill, H883. The underlying assumption driving consolidation appears to be that the current governance structure doesn’t well serve a school system obligated to deliver “21st-century skills.”

The rationale is curious because much of the spirited public debate over K-12 education in Vermont tends to focus on the state’s high per-pupil spending and the urgent need to contain costs. This legislation shifts the conversation from spending to governance and thus reformulates the ostensible problem for which officials are desperately seeking a solution.

Are Vermont school districts struggling to meet the challenges posed by modern society? And if so, is it because of the way they are governed? By at least one measure — international assessments in mathematics — Vermont students are doing just fine, and many experts attribute their success to small class sizes, small schools and watchful school boards. “Vermont does very well by its students in terms of education, and I would argue that it is not in spite of the governance structure, but because of it,” commented William Mathis, a member of the State Board of Education whose dissenting views on the consolidation bill appear elsewhere on this page.

This is not to say Vermont schools can’t be improved. Nor is it to suggest that there’s no connection between governance and cost; on a per-pupil basis, small districts are generally more expensive to operate than larger ones. But we wonder whether the real purpose of this bill is not so much to increase opportunity as to streamline administrative units in order to simplify governance, achieve greater efficiencies and save money — in short, the usual reasons states opt to redraw districts. Indeed, the bill asserts that “governance reform will bend the curve on expenditure increases over the long term” and “may yield savings that local voters can use to invest in other priorities or in relief for taxpayers.” Fewer districts would mean fewer superintendents and other administrators and lessen personnel costs. At the same time, larger regional units could more easily oversee the state obligations and federal mandates, including special education, that consume so much administrative time in smaller districts.

So there may be valid reasons to realign some school districts, assuming such realignment pays heed to geography and municipal compatibility. The current bill, however, which would have a “design team” drawing boundaries if school districts don’t voluntarily merge, isn’t likely to fly. Perhaps proponents think they can sell this bill if its ultimate goal is to improve education. But they haven’t made a convincing case that diluting local control will lead to better results. To test whether there’s merit in the idea, why not establish a financial incentive for consolidating districts and let a few communities serve as a laboratory for experimentation?