By Nat Frothingham-
On Town Meeting Day this March 4, when 35 of 272 school budgets went down to defeat—the largest number of school budget defeats in Vermont in a decade—politicians in Montpelier and school people across the state took notice.
The budget defeats were not confined to small towns. Jurisdictions that rejected school budgets included some of the state’s largest and most influential communities—Burlington, Rutland, Barre City and Montpelier.
On March 25, a quick three weeks after Town Meeting Day, the House Committee on Education introduced H.883, a school consolidation bill that would have condensed Vermont’s 280-odd school districts into an estimated 45 to 60 expanded districts. The bill described a process and timetable for achieving the pared-down number of school districts, with an ultimate deadline of July 1, 2020.
On April 30, the House passed H.883 on a 76-60 vote. But as the legislative session came to a close, the bill died in the Senate. Thus, school district consolidation and all the issues that it excites—such as the cost, control and educational quality of Vermont’s schools—still await action as planning goes forward in advance of a new legislative session, to begin in January 2015.
Stephan Morse, Jeff Francis, and Peter Peltz—three men who come at school district consolidation and related issues from different perspectives—shared their viewpoints recently in interviews with The Bridge.
Stephan Morse, State Board of Education
Morse, a past speaker of the House, currently chairs the State Board of Education (BOE), Vermont’s most important government body making educational policy. Morse believes that Vermont has too many individual school districts. “We supported the consolidation bill in the last session,” he said.
When asked what the right number of school districts might be, he said, “I don’t approach it that way.” Instead he started the discussion by sharing in the general agreement about the value of individual schools as anchor points in small, rural communities. “We all recognize the historic significance of schools in rural towns to the character of individual communities,” he said.
At the same time, he was utterly clear about the need to provide the greatest opportunities—and equal opportunities—for students in all of the state’s schools.
He underscored the need for children in smaller schools—those with fewer than 50 students—to have access to the educational quality they will need for their lives and careers. When pressed about money issues and property taxes, he said, “It’s about educational opportunity. But money plays a secondary role.”
Speaking approvingly of the legislative support that H.883 garnered in the 2014 legislative session, he said, “I was encouraged the bill got as far as it did.” He didn’t think the district consolidation issue was going away. “It’s urgent,” he said, noting that school enrollments are down from a high of some 110,000 students in the 1990s to 80,000 today.
“You can’t educate kids for the 21st century with an 18th-century structure,” he said.
Morse identified the Legislature, the governor and the BOE as three key players in putting together a fresh legislative proposal. The BOE is swinging into action right now. Said Morse, “Early this fall I will form a legislative committee [of the BOE] and invite Vermonters and educators to give us their opinions. Then we will make a presentation to the Legislature next year.”
Jeff Francis, Vermont Superintendents’ Association
Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents’ Association, said he doesn’t know exactly what’s going to happen with school district consolidation. But Francis, like many other Vermonters, is concerned about how schools might deal with increases in fixed costs, such as those for personnel and facilities. Once these costs are paid, very little money remains, and this can result in a loss of educational opportunity.
“We’re looking at a [school] cost trajectory of 2 to 4 percent per year, and schools are having to cut programs.”
Francis also talked about school districts that are holding costs steady and bringing in level-funded school budget proposals. But even a school board that keeps its budget’s bottom line where it has been may eventually have to propose a stiff tax increase, because of the complex calculations in the state funding formula.
“School budgets have increased faster than state revenues,” he added. The state, he continued, is saying that it can only sustain school budget increases in the neighborhood of 2 percent. But what happens, he asked rhetorically, when local schools bring in budgets that are going up 3 to 4 percent?
Francis also had a question for school officials: “Why, when enrollments decline, are you operating with the same number of personnel?” If a school official chose to answer this question, Francis imagined he or she would say, “If we make these cuts, we will hurt the quality of education.”
Francis reported that there are small schools in Vermont today that are half the size they were just 10 years ago. “It’s an extraordinarily complicated thing. The challenges are not going to go away.”
He noted that the rise in taxes to support public education has reached the point where it’s attracted the attention of municipal officials and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Now the state’s towns and cities are taking a sharper look at the rising cost of public education and how those costs are affecting the availability of money to pay for municipal budgets.
In Francis’s view, not taking action may be the least attractive alternative. He said that some small, “marginal” schools might be able to do a better job educationally by joining a larger school district. “A small school in a larger system might make [that small school] viable,” he said.
“I think the intensity of this discussion will be fueled by property taxes and student opportunity,” he concluded.
Peter Peltz, Vermont House Member
State Representative Peter Peltz (D-Woodbury), who served as vice chair of the House Education Committee this past session, and who is not running for re-election this November, acknowledged the difficulty of the school district consolidation issue. “Anytime we try to do any structural change,” he said, “there is strong resistance.” That resistance comes from multiple fronts, he continued, mentioning “teachers unions and local school boards.”
While he has certainly heard the clamor over property taxes, Peltz said, “We can’t just be focused on the cost of education. You have to look at the way money is raised. You have to pay attention to the needs of students.”
He expressed appreciation toward local school board members, saying they worked hard and focused on their respective schools. “It’s hard for them to think about sharing and merging,” he said. “It’s not their purview. This is not what they do.” At the same time, however, he felt that money can be readily saved when schools cooperate with each other. He questioned why each district has to have its own budget and audits. “When you are sharing the budgets, you are saving money,” he said.
Peltz wasn’t blaming anyone. “It’s all about our demographics, our economy, an aging population, a host of issues,” he said.
Peltz lives in Woodbury, population 906. The town has an elementary school with about 50 pupils. When asked if he thought the school was in danger of closing, he said that he didn’t think that a consolidation bill like H.883 posed a threat to it. “I think the threat is the pure economics of it—dipping into your reserve funds to prevent that.”
He said that some change in the school district structure that would lead to a sharing of resources “would keep some of those schools open.” By way of example, he added, “Woodbury has a great natural environment. That could be a draw. You could do that. That could attract students.”