Lawmakers go back to school on consolidation talks
By JOSH O’GORMAN
Vermont press bureau | April 10,2014
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Gordon Woodrow, chairman of the Sunderland School Board, testifies on school district consolidation before the House Committees on Education and Ways and Means at the State House in Montpelier on Wednesday.
MONTPELIER — School officials from around the state spoke on both sides of a bill that would eliminate their local boards.
The second House hearing on a draft bill that would consolidate the state’s nearly 300 school districts drew a crowd of approximately 60 people, many of whom began lining up an hour before the hearing and filled every seat in the hearing room.
H.883 proposes a six-year plan that would, by 2020, eliminate the state’s 59 supervisory unions and consolidate the state’s 273 school districts into what the bill calls “expanded districts” that would offer pre-K-12 education and access to one of the state’s 17 technical centers.
For the first two years of the plan, districts would have the opportunity to consolidate voluntarily. After 2014, however, a “design team” — appointed by the House, the Senate and the governor — would consolidate the remaining districts.
The bill makes claims that consolidation would improve education for Vermont’s students by opening up access to electives and advanced-placement classes that are not available at small schools. It also asserts consolidation could bend the rising cost curve of education.
Those claims were challenged by David Schoales, a member of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Board, who read a resolution from his board calling for an independent study to learn whether assertions made in the bill are supported by data.
Chris McVeigh of Middlesex, who sits on the Rumney Memorial School Board and the U-32 Executive Committee, took issue with a provision in the bill that would eliminate local school boards in favor of a single board that would govern the expanded district.
“We are able, as an active board, to respond to situations with the families and the principal. It’s this kind of closeness that would be lost with Act 883,” McVeigh said. “What we lose with (H.883) is a real connection with our community.”
However, several school board members spoke in favor of eliminating local boards.
Emily Long, chairwoman of the Windham Central Supervisory Union, spoke of how difficult it is to initiate any union-wide programs across nearly a dozen boards.
Leonard Barrett, chairman of the UD-3 Board in Middlebury, echoed Long’s comments.
“It’s hard to get things done with multiple boards,” Barrett said. “The principals and superintendents spend far too much time catering to the boards and not enough time with the students.”
Ken Fredette, chairman of the Wallingford School Board, discussed a failed effort several years ago to consolidate the governance of the Rutland South Supervisory Union from five boards with 21 members — for four schools — to a single, nine-person board.
“I think this is a good idea,” Fredette said. “I don’t think it will affect school choice, but I don’t think it will save much money, either.”
As the bill was drafted in March, several education experts testified before the House Education Committee that the current governance system — in which a superintendent answers to an average of seven boards and as many as 13 — has led to high superintendent turnover, with 16 positions opening up just this year.
Resident Milan Miller of Williamstown said his town is “overwhelmingly opposed to this plan. There must be another way to relieve superintendents from meeting with multiple boards.”
Debra Taylor, superintendent of Rutland Central Supervisory Union, said she supports the intent of the bill. However, her board members — from Proctor, Rutland Town and West Rutland — have expressed concern that, with 1,125 students, the supervisory union is below the minimum threshold of 1,250 students outlined in the bill.
The bill can be read online at goo.gl/Si56ul.