Vermont Leaders Seek to Improve Schools Through ‘Partnership’

Tuesday, October 07, 2014
With rising property taxes and student enrollment in Vermont down by 30,000 in the last two decades, schools across the state must adapt and innovate, or eventually close, said Gov. Peter Shumlin and Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe in a wide-ranging editorial board meeting on Friday at the Valley News .

That may well mean consolidation of districts, sharing resources across towns and looking more closely at staffing. But Vermonters expecting that answers to the state’s education dilemma will come from the Legislature in the form of a bill mandating consolidation should think again.

“We share the vision that the most important thing we can do right now is develop a partnership with local communities, driven by data instead of fear or lack of knowledge,” said Shumlin. “If you want to see a real mess, ask Montpelier to try to figure out how to solve this problem with a piece of legislation that consolidates schools. That would be a disaster.”

That said, Holcombe said, the Legislature has made it clear that it recognizes that the level of spending on education in the state is unsustainable. “We did get consensus from the Legislature that there’s a problem, and it doesn’t matter what kind of Vermont town you are: we do have a spending problem. They sent a signal that we need to start paying attention to this.”

House Bill 883, which passed the state House but stalled in the Senate, would have given Holcombe the authority to appoint a task force to reshape Vermont’s system of school governance. Districts would have been encouraged to form partnerships, but the state would have held final authority to group schools into larger districts. Unlike earlier proposals to consolidate school districts, H. 883 had earned the backing of the state’s associations of school boards and of superintendents.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to a complex problem, Shumlin said. What works in Dummerston might not work in Arlington, or vice versa.

Vermont has some 282 school districts, nearly 60 supervisory unions and the highest per-pupil spending in the country, while enrollment continues to decline statewide overall. Although some school districts, like Norwich, have seen enrollment increases, when a school does experience decline in student numbers, said Holcome, one of two things happens: “Either you’re going to cut your program or your tax rate is going to increase.”

In addition, said Holcombe, last year the state experienced a 3 0 percent turnover in superintendents, while also seeing a high turnover among principals. “That’s a cost that’s hard to measure in dollars in terms of your ability to advance any kind of instructional improvement.”

Holcombe, a Norwich resident whom Shumlin appointed to the job in January, has been visiting school districts across the state to talk about a wide array of issues that include consolidation of districts and reduction in costs.

“I think what we’re able to put out and help clarify is, what are the challenges districts are facing so that when they experience an increase in their tax rate they understand what the source of that is and they can make better decisions,” Holcombe said. “We’re seeing an increasing number of districts that are actually talking to each other across district lines to try to look for opportunities to do collaborations that might reduce cost and cost structures.”

One of the problems, Shumlin said, is that despite the declining enrollment, “we still have the same administrative structure and more staff on the ground than we had when we had 30,000 more students.”

That, both Shumlin and Holcombe said, is untenable. Not only will costs continue to “go through the roof,” Shumlin said, but research suggests that a quality education diminishes as classes get smaller and smaller.

Early in the 20th century, 15 kids in a classroom used to be called a one-room schoolhouse, Holcombe said; it’s now possible to go through some Vermont schools and see classrooms with only five or six children, although it’s no longer called a one-room schoolhouse. “That’s an expensive way to educate, and if that’s the choice you’re going to make, it’s going to cost a lot.”

There are other challenges facing the state as it grapples with how best to educate its children and prepare them to go on to college, given that the job market has changed dramatically since the global recession that began in the fall of 2007.

Although Vermont boasts one of the highest percentages of students in the country completing high school, it lags well behind other states in sending those students on to two-year or four-year colleges.

“With all the money we do spend in Vermont, one of the discouraging results is that we still haven’t moved the ball in terms of moving low-income students beyond high school, affordability being the biggest obstacle to moving beyond high school,” Shumlin said.

Initiatives to counter this phenomenon include dual enrollment, or allowing junior and senior high students to also take college courses, going to college early, and the Vermont Strong Scholars program, in which eligible students will be offered two years of loan forgiveness if they remain in state after graduation and work in such sectors as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and health sciences.

Another significant law passed by the Legislature this year, said Holcombe, offers universal access to pre-school. “I think there are few slam dunks in the empirical research and I think pre-K is one of them in terms of the fact that we know that those critical ages — 3,4, 5 — are so critical for self-regulation, pre-literacy and pre-numeracy concepts. We know the achievement gap starts at birth or even before and we see this as absolutely critical ... to closing the opportunity gap.”

In the long run, pre-K will save money for the state going forward, Holcombe said, by giving children a chance to thrive at a younger age, rather than trying to mediate behavior and discipline problems later on in elementary or high school.

“No child in Vermont shall be held back from a strong start based upon the town lines they happen to be born into,” Shumlin said.

Another bright spot, Holcombe said, is the increase in students graduating from CTE (career and technical education) programs. Eligible students are 16 years of age or older, and do not have a high school diploma. Such students may not be able to afford or are not interested in the traditional four-year college track; a CTE program enables a student to graduate with up to two years of college credits and training in such fields as nursing or engineering. Such programs may be of particular use, said Holcombe, to some boys growing up in poverty, who have proved hard to reach with a traditional emphasis on an academic, liberal arts education.

Finally, said Shumlin, the fact that he and Holcombe agree on what the problems are, and what to do about them, will pay dividends. Through close analysis of data, they can estimate where a school district’s enrollment and tax burden will be in five years, and then 10 years.

“We’re here to partner with you so you can decide what makes the most sense. Vermonters make logical decisions... as long as they know what’s happening. They haven’t been given the data, the knowledge and the partnerships they deserve — and they will get that,” Shumlin said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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