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School Boards Chief: “Engage Every Student”

Interview by Nat Frothingham and C.B. Hall.
Steve Dale, executive director of the Montpelier-based Vermont School Boards Association, finds himself in a tight spot. He has to represent the views of the state’s nearly 300 school districts as they confront—some eagerly, some in near-terror—the possibility of an enforced consolidation as a remedy to the Green Mountain State’s skyrocketing educational costs. With enrollment falling steadily and costs per student going in the opposite direction, plenty of Vermonters are wondering what to do.
Dale stopped by The Bridge office recently to share his perspective on the situation with publisher Nat Frothingham and managing editor C.B. Hall.
In a subsequent email to us, he added that “regardless of how many school boards we have now or in the future, … local boards are critical to our state. They provide strong oversight of education for our children and good value for taxpayers.” He urged readers of The Bridge “to thank your school board members for the hard work they do. It is a complex, time-consuming, and often pressure-filled role that they do as volunteers on behalf of the community.”
Frothingham: There’s lively discussion at the moment about declining enrollment, increasing costs, community identity, quality of education.
Dale: Yes, those four factors all enter in. And the other one, which is relevant to all the others, is the leadership question—attracting strong leaders that can lead us through this strong transition.
Frothingham: You and the School Boards Association have chosen not to make specific recommendations for now. Why?
Dale: Our point of view is that there are serious issues that we need to address as a state. I would say there are four reasons for action:
One, as a state we have committed ourselves to the personalization of education. … We need to engage every student. Until recently we have been missing, I’d say, a third of the students. We were dividing kids into those that were going to do white collar work, and those that were doing blue-collar work. There was an acceptance, for many years, that there were some students who weren’t going to graduate from high school.
Two, our cost structure is such that, by almost any measure, Vermont’s cost per student is among the highest in the country, if not the highest of the country. Through enrollment decline, we’ve lost something like 18 percent of the student body since 1999, and the number of teachers has remained almost constant. There are some folks that say, so long as we’re delivering a quality product, that’s okay, but the number one issue driving the political debate is property taxes. There’s the whole finance side.
Three, there’s the whole leadership question. We had 20 out of 60 superintendents turn over this year. The pool [of applicants to replace them] was as thin as I’ve ever seen. It’s a tough market out there. [A superintendent] might be working for as many as 10 or 12 school boards—it’s not an attractive situation.
Four, there’s the supervisory union structure, which was created in 1912: the superintendents were hired to bring teaching expertise to the teacher. At that time, the supervisory union lines were pretty randomly drawn. Over the years, they have morphed into the key management structure for our system. The structure statewide is still extremely varied and in many cases is not as accountable as it might be. Today, you’ve got North Country, which is 65 miles across and has 12 districts. Then you’ve got Northfield-Roxbury, which has two districts, so you’ve got this range from big to tiny.
You asked why we haven’t taken a stronger position. We’re a membership organization, and all of these school districts are our constituents. The actual situation in every community in Vermont is very different. There are some that have figured out these challenges quite well. There’s no doubt that the students in Champlain Valley Union High School will be fine whether there is a change in school district structure or not. They have a very robust program. But there are some places in Vermont where people need to come to grips with realities on the ground, and make some changes.
Hall: What do you say about the possibility that a reduction in the number of districts will mean bigger schools and thus less of the productive social context that small schools lay claim to?
Dale: This discussion quickly goes to places where it doesn’t need to go. If the school districts decided they could come together and provide more options for their students at an advantageous cost, they can do that in many ways that don’t require closing schools.
The biggest risk we run is that small school districts, run by a single board—their only option to avoid steep tax increases is to cut. They’re going to cut music, they’re going to cut foreign language, they’re going to cut everything that isn’t absolutely essential. Then the parents—I’m talking about the people of means—decide that they’re going to send their kids to the Waldorf School, or whatever. There are places where local boards can come together and figure this out and strengthen local schools in the process.
Frothingham: I taught at Randolph Union High School in the ‘70s. It was seven through 12. I was not impressed by the interaction between teachers and students. A lot of kids were there in a big place, and they were lost. It left me with immense skepticism about the union high school concept and about what can happen when consolidation goes badly.
Dale: I was a teacher in a Cleveland high school in the 1970s that had 3000 kids. I had 40 kids in every class. [Randolph] is a very small school. The issue here is not making schools bigger. It is about what a school district can deliver to the kids: How you can achieve more within a reasonable level of resources? We have a number of schools that have no music offerings, that don’t have any interscholastic sports program because they don’t have enough kids.
There’s nobody talking about bigger high schools as a goal—you know, 3000-student high schools. There are questions about schools that have 40 kids, 60 kids. Are they getting enough results to justify our spending $25,000 per student?
Frothingham: We’re coming across distressing statewide information: high graduation rates for high school students, but low college graduation rates. What’s going on here?
Dale: That’s one of the most troubling bits of data that we see. There’s all kinds of variables related to that—family economics and aspirations, affordability of higher education. I think there’s a set of kids that we have not historically connected with well. That’s got to be the piece that changes. There’s reason to be optimistic. There are school districts in this state that have really done some significant things in that regard.
Frothingham: What do you think people who are reading our paper need to know?
Dale: I think we need to acknowledge who we are as a state and what makes us special, but we can’t make that the end of the conversation. We need to know how well students are navigating the world that they’re moving into. We need to look at how many of those kids are engaged.
Frothingham: How do you figure that out?
Dale: You ask those questions of the school, of the parents. To me that’s the threshold question: How do we know that we’re being successful with our students, and what are the indicators? If you talk with the Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe, you understand that we need a balanced accountability system—not assessment based on just one test, as we have now.
Frothingham: I’ve been to many school board meetings, and most of it is just mechanics. I don’t really know more when I come out of the meeting than when I came in.
Dale: Often what you see is the mechanics: the policies, the budget. Maybe you’ll see details that really aren’t board work. You’ll see less of the broad visioning of where you want your district to go. You’ll see some monitoring of educational performance, but because of the lack of good data, there’s less of that than there should be. We want to see board members playing more of a broad role. That’s where the community should be engaged.