Costs, savings of school district mergers weighed
By JOSH O’GORMAN
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | April 19,2014
MONTPELIER — Legislators and education experts are weighing in on cost estimates for a plan to consolidate the state’s nearly 300 school districts.
H.883 outlines a six-year process that would yield 45 to 55 larger districts, each with a single governing board, budget and tax rate.
The chief financial officer of the Agency of Education, Bill Talbott, put the cost for the first three years at $3.1 million. He testified Thursday before the House Appropriations Committee, which reviews the financial impacts of potential laws.
Talbott’s estimate calls for two new state-level positions. The first would be a staff member at $77,500 a year to assist what the bill is calling a design team, composed of appointees from the House, Senate and governor who would create a statewide consolidation plan.
The estimate calls for a second staff member at the same $77,500 salary who would assist the State Board of Education, which could see an increase in its duties under the consolidation plan as districts look to consolidate voluntarily ahead of the law.
Voluntary mergers into “regional education districts” — which state law now encourages with financial incentives — must be approved by the State Board of Education.
With a single board and a single budget for multiple schools, a RED is similar to what is envisioned as a final product under the consolidation plan. The bill says the design team would not alter a RED “to the extent feasible.”
Still, conventional wisdom among education experts is that there would be an increase in voluntary consolidation when districts are faced with the possibility of involuntary consolidation.
Talbott’s estimate takes into account the financial incentives that would need to be paid with voluntary consolidation, which include $20,000 for each RED study committee and $150,000 for each expanded district when consolidation is complete.
Talbott estimated 20 RED studies during the first three years, at a cost of $400,000, as well as the creation of 16 regional education districts during the same period, at a cost of $2.4 million.
Friday, the Appropriations Committee heard from Steven Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, and Jeffrey Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.
Dale suggested the estimate that 16 districts would be created voluntarily might be low.
“If we’re talking about creating 45 to 55, or something in that neighborhood, the hope would be we might get to 30 (voluntary districts),” Dale said. “The hope would be that all of them would self-determine. I don’t think that’s realistic, but think there should be more than 16 if we are successful.”
Dale also addressed a lack of money budgeted for districts that come together involuntarily and suggested $50,000 for each expanded district created by the design team. Such funding was in the House Education Committee version of the bill before it was revised by the Ways and Means Committee.
Last, Dale suggested that two staff members might not be sufficient to handle the administrative work surrounding consolidation.
“I would think there should be two to four professional staff and half of an (administrative assistant’s) time that would support all of the logistics,” Dale said.
The committee also briefly discussed an estimate from the Agency of Education that the consolidation of districts would likely result in salary increases as school employees from different districts come together under one pay scale.
Talbott estimates salary alignment could cost $4.7 million to $9.4 million a year. At the same time, there is an assumption that consolidation would result in a reduction in the number of education positions needed. A 1 percent across-the-board reduction in school staff would save $11.2 million a year.
Francis expressed optimism that the savings could be even greater.
“I think we can do better than 1 percent,” said Francis, given what he called a precipitous decline in school enrollment across the state.
After the presentations, several committee members discussed the bill, including Democratic Rep. Ann Manwaring from Wilmington, who concurred with Dale on the need for additional staff.
“I wonder if we’ve aimed too low here because we all want to save money, but I don’t think what we have here is going to be up to the task,” Manwaring said.
Robert Helm, a Republican representative from Fair Haven, said he will likely have a hard time selling the bill to his constituents.
“I don’t think my supervisory union will go along with this, and I don’t think my school boards will either,” Helm said.
Republican Rep. Philip Winters, of Williamstown, said the consolidation bill is a good start.
“I think this bill has at least opened the doors so we can start discussing the other half of the equation, which is the method of funding,” Winters said.