• Essence of control
    September 08,2013
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    While the Legislature passed a pair of laws three years ago that were designed to encourage consolidation in Vermont’s school districts, the mergers have been limited to nonexistent. The local movement toward consolidation has been so lackluster that Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca has in effect thrown up his hands in surrender. If local officials don’t want to merge or consolidate, why try to force them?

    The answer comes down to money.

    Most of the Legislature’s recent education reforms have been about money. The state’s biggest education reform, Act 60, was all about money — ensuring there was equal funding for education wherever you live in Vermont. That act, and its follow-up, Act 68, had some unintended consequences, one of which was to enshrine a formula for school funding that is causing increasing tension between local officials and the state.

    The education consolidation push — which was not mandated, but “encouraged” — and further efforts to reform the state’s education property tax formulas, which began late in this most recent legislative session, are two sides of the same coin.

    The push for consolidation is, in short, a search for efficiency as Vermont’s school population changes.

    Vermont’s student population has been declining steadily since the 1990s, to the point where there are just about 80,000 students enrolled in grades kindergarten through 12th grade. There were roughly 94,000 as recently as 2003.

    Meanwhile, overall spending on elementary and secondary education has steadily grown, to more than $1.1 billion. That disconnect leads to the question: If we’ve got fewer students, why are we paying more? And what could we do to pay less?

    One answer is to consolidate resources. It’s not that different from the principle of companies centralizing functions that can be done anywhere, from payroll to call centers. For supervisory unions, consolidation supporters say, a similar efficiency could be achieved through having one office where previously there were four or five, and a similar change in staff members.

    A recent white paper by the group Campaign For Vermont suggests that just 15 “education districts,” rather than the current 200-plus, could do the same job or better, at less cost. The consolidated districts would centralize functions like union negotiations, purchasing and other duties, while leaving education decisions in the hands of locals.

    That is just one of many proposals to reduce education spending that have been floated over the last few decades.

    On the face of it, all this makes sense as a money-saving effort, but Vermont has a long history of resisting consolidation, especially where schools are concerned. Small schools are often at the center of the community for Vermont’s small towns, and there is a strong sense that local control over the budgets — and the quality of education — is vital.

    That’s one reason the Montpelier school district has not consolidated with U-32, which serves five towns around Montpelier, and is just a quarter mile from the city line. Even as the student population has dwindled and the school infrastructure has aged, the city’s sense of school identity has remained strong.

    Likewise, small towns like Proctor, Rochester and West Rutland operate K-12 schools whose entire population might be equivalent to one grade in the nearby Rutland City schools. That apparent inefficiency has not resulted in consolidation, in part because these school districts have loyal local support for remaining independent.

    But the current education funding reform proposals may yet force the question that the consolidation bills (Acts 154 and 156 of the 2009-10 session) did not. The problem with school funding right now is that the state has limited the General Fund transfer to education spending in the last three years, which has shifted more of the funding burden to the property tax base.

    At the same time, the state has “encouraged” local school boards to limit spending increases. By and large, the locals haven’t listened, often because of mandated increases in salaries and rising health care costs. So the rise in school spending has meant a rise in education property taxes. And those taxes might rise by more than 10 percent over the 2014 and 2015 tax years if the Legislature doesn’t change the equation.

    While the proposed reforms might cushion that tax increase, they will potentially eliminate supports for smaller schools, and dictate staff-to-student ratios, which could force districts into a more serious consideration of consolidation.

    It’s all about the money. If the state wants savings, it should be for the right reasons, not simply to shift all the burden onto local communities while taking away control.
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