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The Terra Incognita of School District Consolidation

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by C.B. Hall
Perhaps Vermont is overdoing this local control stuff. Between 1952 and 2012, the rest of the United States saw its school districts reduced in number by 80 percent in the name of efficiency, consistency of educational offerings and cost reduction. Meanwhile, Vermont’s complement of school districts actually increased. Today, by one count, 282 school districts dot the Green Mountain State, giving it the highest density of districts per population of any state, even as public school enrollment declines steadily. And, no surprise, Vermont ranks fourth-highest among all the states in money spent per public school pupil, according to Governing magazine, and ninth-highest in terms of the property taxes that fund education, according to tax-rates.org.
But perhaps Vermont is not overdoing local control. While the bill is daunting, the state’s schools produce superior results. According to US Census Bureau data, the Green Mountain State ranks sixth among the states in terms of secondary-school completion—and first when standings in secondary-school, bachelor’s-degree and advanced-degree completion are averaged. And, for many Vermonters, local control in itself, whatever the sector of activity, remains a cherished political and social asset.
Such are the factors Vermonters will have to balance as they ponder an issue that the legislature, in its last session, ultimately dropped—whether to force the consolidation of school districts, reducing the 282 to approximately 50. To accomplish that, the session’s legislative vehicle, House bill 883, would have created a so-called design team to draft a plan for lowering the hammer on districts unwilling to merge with other districts voluntarily under a 2010 law, Act 153. That statute has led to only one voluntary consolidation, which brought together five districts in southern Vermont.
House bill 883 passed the House in the last days of the legislative session, then died in the Senate, which instead composed a more moderate senate bill proposal that omitted any mandatory consolidation provisions. The House rejected that proposal and could not summon the votes to create a conference committee to iron out the differences in the two chambers’ views.
“I just think it’s a huge issue,” Senator Bill Doyle (R-Montpelier) explained regarding the Senate’s reluctance to take up the House bill. “Information should proceed action. And it should be not so much top-down as bottom-up. We should know what we’re talking about.”
In an online Vermont Business Magazine poll that asked, “Should Vermont consolidate schools?” respondents answered affirmatively by a margin of more than five to one. However, Doyle’s statewide poll of this year’s town-meeting attendees’ sentiments did not ask about school district consolidation, and the veteran legislator declined to speculate on how public opinion breaks down on the question.
“I would guess that most people think that ideally the best result is that communities sit down and talk with one another and come up with some possible solutions that might fit smaller communities,” Doyle said. “What’s good for Chittenden County and the larger areas is not good for smaller parts of the state. Smaller counties don’t want to have it forced upon them.”
Arguments that either consolidation or the status quo—which one depends on who’s speaking—will prove cheaper may get lost in the statistical swamp. The fact that different districts serve different administrative purposes, for example tuitioning high-schoolers as opposed to operating a high school, renders the numerical analysis all the more slippery. According to state figures, the 17 largest districts needed an average of $17,405 in total expenditures to educate an “equalized pupil” in fiscal 2013; the many small districts that sent all their students to school elsewhere, rather than operating their own schools, needed only $15,852, about 9 percent less, suggesting that leaving such districts alone might save money. But within the one most common administrative model—operating an elementary school but belonging to a union or joint high school district—the 32 districts classified as small needed about $2,500 more than the three classified as very large.
But those figures represent the ratio of total expenditures to each “equalized pupil,” a phrase that requires introduction. An equalized pupil is one student multiplied by certain coefficients that quantify his or her relative cost of education, given any special needs, for example. One student can thus become .8 or 1.2 equalized pupils. The matter gets even more complex when the figure used as the ratio’s numerator by the Agency of Education is “spending,” as opposed to the total expenditures.
The spending, meaning income from school taxes, does not include revenue offsets—external revenue which can, for example, include grants from all manner of sources. By using only the spending figure and increasing the student count to a higher equalized-pupil figure, the computations can make big urban districts with substantial proportions of challenged students and an abundance of grant funding, for instance, look more efficient as educational providers.
The Burlington School District, for example, spent only $12,333 per equalized pupil in fiscal 2013, below the state average of $12,789; but expenditures per student enrolled totaled $17,854, above the state average of $16,897. At $14,199 in spending per equalized pupil, Fayston, with less than 3 percent of Burlington’s enrollment, looked expensive; but total expenditures per actual student came to only $15,950, well under the Burlington figure and the state average.
All of which suggests that statistics prove nothing because they can prove anything—and, more to the point, that the district consolidation issue will therefore be decided instead by ideologies, prejudices and surmises as to what the future might hold. Big, consolidated school districts might see fit to close outlying schoolhouses so long as gas prices remain low enough to make busing kids into town cheaper. Big school districts provide options for studying subjects which a small district could never realistically offer, but can they match the more personal interactions of small schools and small school districts? Pick your presumptions and go from there.
While she does not oppose voluntary consolidations, Heidi Spear of Fayston, an education activist and independent candidate for the Vermont’s House of Representatives, rejected the forced-consolidation idea, terming it “not in the interest of the students and community. The primary path to getting [educational equity] is tackling the funding [question], not eliminating districts.”
Given the complexities of educational finance, Fayston told The Bridge, forced consolidation means “some communities would win and some would lose—because of choices that were not their own.” Under forced consolidation, “our costs would go up,” she said, citing the expense of “rolling up” personnel contracts to meet the pay level of what had been the best-paying district within the new, consolidated district’s area.
“I disagree strongly,” responded Representative Joey Donovan (D-Burlington), who chaired her chamber’s education committee this past session. She reiterated the most common pro-consolidation arguments: “We have a declining school population that doesn’t show that it’s really going to turn around for a number of years, and we have school districts that are having added costs because of that. We need to be able to offer a curriculum that is meaningful to kids so they can be competitive in the 21st century. Some school districts are not going to be able to do that.”
“We love to tout local control, but in reality it’s more in many people’s minds than it is in reality,” Donovan went on. “[H.883] could be the savior of small schools. In an enlarged school district, you’re going to be able to spread the costs over a greater number of people. I can see where a smaller school could stay open as something a little different from what it is today.”
She anticipated that H.883 would be reintroduced in the next session in more or less the same form. “It’s an awful thing to lose a bill because of the ticking of the clock and the inability to suspend rules,” she said, citing House Republicans’ refusal to forgo rules to form a conference committee that might have pushed consolidation legislation across the finish line in the last days of the session.
For small districts, the natural fear is one of losing the local school altogether, with children then being bused to far-off schools. With fewer than 50 students, Woodbury’s K–6 school is the smallest in its six-school supervisory union, and presents a case in point, as well as an exemplar of statewide issues playing out their dynamic within a single town’s boundaries.
If the town of 800 became part of a larger district, “definitely, eventually they would close our school,” said Woodbury Board Chair Monty Shatney, like Spear speaking personally. “If it’s a district with seven schools in it and you have to cut corners, what’s going to be the easiest way? . . . The only savings is in closing buildings.”
State representative and fellow Woodbury resident Peter Peltz (D) disagreed. “I would question Monty: ‘How are you going to go it alone in terms of the budget and fear of really cutting programs?’ What’s being offered to kids is on the cutting board . . . There are ways to address [the possibility of closing a school]. The closure is more likely to happen without the merger.”
History does not appear to support Peltz’s assertion: Vermont has no shortage of former schoolhouses to attest to what happened following the school district reorganization of 1892, when the legislature forced the consolidation of the state’s 2500 districts into something close to today’s 282. The question now confronting Vermonters is whether to embark on another major downsizing in school governance, entering an administrative terra incognita that might offer a better education for the state’s children, or might do nothing more than put out the lights at a lot of small schools.