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Equalizing opportunities

As Legislature tries to pass bill to consolidate school districts, more questions are raised than answered

BRATTLEBORO—Vermont’s bloated education governance system does not provide equal opportunities to students and needs streamlining, say supporters behind legislation to expand the state’s school districts.

But the opponents of the education-reform bill ask: would it do more harm than good?

The questions raised by the legislation, however, might point to a larger question: how does Vermont provide equal educational opportunities, both in the realms of curriculum and funding?

As this session winds down in Montpelier, whether education-reform legislation will reach Gov. Peter Shumlin’s desk — and, if so, which version will survive the lawmaking process — remains to be seen.

In broad strokes, the legislation aims to streamline education governance by reducing the number of school districts from the current 273 to somewhere between 45 and 55 districts.

The legislation would also reduce the number of administrators and school boards.

The state has wrestled to provide equal educational opportunities since the Vermont Supreme Court handed down the Brigham decision in 1997, which decreed that young Vermonters educated in schools funded by local property taxes did not receive the equal opportunity mandated by the state’s constitution.

Since that decision, the legislature passed Acts 60 and 68, which have focused on the funding side of education through a statewide property tax to bring the funds in to the state coffers and to distribute the money in a way that — in theory, at least — complies with the Supreme Court decision.

Discussions about controlling the rapid increases in the education tax have been ongoing.

Shumlin and his predecessor, Jim Douglas, have repeatedly called upon voters to help control the rising school budgets at their local Town Meetings.

This year, 34 towns defeated their respective school budgets — the highest number in a decade.

It took three tries for voters in the Windham Central Supervisory Union to pass a budget for Leland & Gray Middle and High School. Next week, Vernon voters will reconsider the budget they defeated at Town Meeting in March.

Will towns lose local control? Is this legislation a smokescreen to distract from the larger education debate? How can the state update its education system? Will small schools close?

These questions are a few of the many issues raised in the discussion of H. 883.

Rural and urban?

On the House floor, most of the votes on the measure have divided not along party lines, but between lawmakers from larger districts voting for the bill and those from rural areas voting against it.

Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Ron Stahley doesn’t know if new legislation will solve the state’s problem of providing equal educational opportunities.

But, he said, a problem exists, especially for small schools.

Stahley, a former principal at Leland & Gray, said that smaller schools lack the money and student numbers compared to larger schools like Brattleboro Union High School.

He said the difference can be seen in the variety of classes offered, such as foreign languages.

He has heard school board members worry that towns will lose local control.

“I guess I don’t see giving up local control [as an issue], because I don’t know how much local control you have anyway,” he said.

According to Stahley, little of a school’s budget is discretionary.

Most of a given budget consists of two unmovable categories: fixed costs (such as pay and benefits for personnel, as agreed upon by a contract), and state or federal mandates that must be funded.

Stahley said local representation in geographically larger, consolidated regional school districts would still occur under the new legislation in the form of a school community council that would include parents and principals.

Each school will still have its advocates, he said.

Stahley views the community councils operating similarly to the Brattleboro Union High School’s school board.

As a district school serving five towns, BUHS has a similar governance structure, where each of the member towns has representation on the school board.

Stahley doesn’t see closing schools as an definite outcome of streamlining school districts.

The schools and boards in WSESU work well together, said Stahley, though he said he couldn’t comment on other districts.

But he did note that other districts which have tried to consolidate have run into issues, with some earlier attempts blocked, he said.

“Nobody likes top down,” Stahley said, “but when you haven’t been able to do this from the grassroots up,” other paths are needed.

Stahley doesn’t focus on the argument that consolidating school governance would help overworked superintendents in the state who oversee multiple smaller unions with some redundant administrative requirements.

Yes, he admits he is wiped out after numerous weekly meetings with multiple school boards but, in Stahley’s view, that’s part of the job.

His concern is consistent school-to-school programming and providing the best education possible to all Vermont students.

It’s the future

Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, a member of the House Education Committee, is a passionate supporter of the House legislation.

“We’re at a crossroads in education,” she said.

Stuart views education as one of the most important public goods that taxpayers fund. Many students now, however, aren’t ready for college, a situation that needs to be remedied, she said.

According to Stuart, Vermont’s education system hasn’t received a serious upgrade since 1892.

“We’re not driving Model Ts anymore, we’re driving Priuses,” she said.

According to Stuart, today’s children will enter workforces that require innovation, skilled communication, and the ability to work collaboratively.

The education system needs to meet the future, said Stuart, because creative people — not naysayers —will create that future.

Stuart, who has worked in marketing and corporate branding, said a key to marketing is “listen to people, then do your best to deliver a product that they want.”

“That’s a hard nut to crack when it comes to education,” said Stuart.

Stuart feels that legislation aimed to streamline school districts is flexible enough to adjust to different types of schools and communities.

The legislation, if passed, will consider public input when designing the new districts.

In response to concerns from members of Brattleboro Representative Town Meeting — a unique government structure in Vermont — the latest iterations of the bill also preserve that body’s role in approving the local education budget.

According to Stuart, schools will be able to share resources and increase the number of their course offerings. Three schools with small student populations could hire one Spanish teacher.

Stuart said that there’s no easy solution for small districts that are too small to thrive and are getting smaller as enrollment decreases. Public school enrollment in Vermont peaked at 105,000 in the mid-1990s. Today, fewer than 80,000 students are enrolled in the state’s public schools.

The state is paying more to educate fewer students, she said, and some boards have trouble finding members to serve.

Stuart, who believes that local control “is an illusion” in Vermont and nationwide, said she listened to many hours of testimony on the bill, including calls to lower spending.

However, the bill isn’t about addressing the funding side of education, she said, pointing out that her committee is “a policy committee, not a money committee.”

Stuart said that “the public wants it both ways” — demanding great educational outcomes and low spending.

In her view, the state has one of the most equitable structures for education spending, but “we are not delivering equitable education opportunities.”

“Streamlining the system is not so much about cost, but using our dollars better to achieve better outcomes,” Stuart said.

Can of worms?

Not all Windham County Representatives share Stuart’s enthusiasm.

Stuart was one of two of nine Windham County Representatives to vote for the new legislation. Five reps voted against the bill, and four were not present for the vote.

In a floor speech, Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, said he recognized the need for equitable opportunities but had reservations that changing governance would help.

“It is hoped that this bill will impact the deficits in opportunity,” said Toleno. “As I have weighed whether or not I could support the bill, I had to weigh whether the mechanism it uses to create change is likely to succeed.”

“I am not convinced,” Toleno said.

“I believe that there is an assumption made that may or may not come to pass — namely, that simply creating a larger-scale system will lead to more equity and more opportunity. Missing is a baseline standard that will clarify what expectations a newly expanded district must meet.”

In Toleno’s view, a new expanded community council would still need to support new educational opportunities, and “there is no particular reason to think that this will happen consistently around the state,” he said.

Reps. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, and Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, also voted against the bill, with both saying that they believed education reform in Vermont will require a grassroots approach.

Moran worried how the elimination of grants for small schools will hurt the five small schools in his district.

The state needs to facilitate a grassroots process that asks communities what they want from education reform without a state agenda in the mix, he said.

Manwaring, calling the bill “old school,” termed it an example of hierarchical, “top-down thinking.”

Education is an emotional issue, she said. Legislators have not paid attention to the complicated mix of parents advocating for their children and the rising education property tax, she said.

And, she said, sometimes the parent and the taxpayer is the same person.

“How do we get the right conversation on the table that leads to the right solutions?” she asked.

According to Manwaring, a lot of work has happened in the country, which supports new methods of teaching that point toward better performance-based outcomes.

She contrasted the proposed bill with other Legislature-defined processes.

She cited one example of the state now offering comprehensive, integrated state services to help people combat drug addiction.

Such programs work from the grassroots up, she said, “yet 883 is the old paradigm of ‘thou shalt do what thou has been told to do.’”

Manwaring also has concerns that the legislation focuses too much on the mechanics of delivering education without defining educational outcomes, or how to reach them.

The two tasks of delivering equitable education opportunities and education spending can’t be separated, she said, and the same tax dollars buy more in larger schools than smaller ones because of the economies of scale.

If the geographic structure of districts change into larger ones, Manwaring expects that outcome of achieving economies of scale will mean closing smaller schools.

“It’s one big can of worms, not just a bunch of little ones,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #253 (Wednesday, May 7, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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