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School District Consolidation in Washington County?

Fayston Elementary School is but one place where school district consolidation has stimulated earnest discussions.
Fayston Elementary School is but one place where school district consolidation has stimulated earnest discussions.

By Carla Occaso-

 On a recent in-service day hosted by Principal Jean Berthiaume at Fayston Elementary School, Moretown Elementary teachers joined their Fayston colleagues to share ideas, resources and camaraderie in order to solidify strategies to face the challenges of the coming school year. The two schools share some staff and plan to increase the sharing of resources in the future.

“This is what consolidation could look like,” Berthiaume told the roomful of educators. “Two rural schools. We have similar positions. We’re excited about the spirit of collaboration. This is the beginning, and relationships take time. Two similar schools can work together for the benefit of students.”

But Fayston and Moretown are not going through a formal process to consolidate their school districts: they’re simply pooling resources. And, in the current discussion of educational consolidation, the distinction between merging schools and merging districts is crucial.

The question of how to handle the upward spiral of school costs has plagued other schools and school districts as well. The fewer students we have in Vermont each year, the more they cost — a conclusion that local school boards all over the state had to reckon with this past Town Meeting Day, when the largest number of towns since 2003 rejected their school budgets, according to VermontBiz.com. Thirty-five out of 246 municipalities said no to their school bills.

But that didn’t make the obligation to teach Vermont’s children go away. Schools still have to find a way to teach in an affordable way while meeting the rigorous Common Core standards established by the National Governors Association.

Some have advanced school district consolidation as a way to save money on education, but so far no Washington County districts have put forward official plans to join forces with other districts, according to Vaughn Altemus, director of finance and mergers at the Agency of Education. There is “no active discussion in Washington County,” he said recently, in a telephone interview with The Bridge.

When asked for a hypothetical example of what school consolidation would look like, Altemus used the illustration of Washington Central Supervisory Union—U-32 and its area’s elementary schools—combining with Montpelier public schools. In the unified district, U-32 could become “a high school for everybody” and the Montpelier High School building could become the middle school for the entire district, rather than having one combined middle/high school— U-32—on East Montpelier’s Gallison Hill, and both a middle school and a high school in Montpelier. The existing districts could “dissolve their boundaries and boards” and create a new, consolidated configuration. “It is not something that is being imposed. The districts have control,” Altemus said. “Basically, the way the law is set up, things happen when voters agree they should happen.”

The issue of consolidating school districts inevitably intertwines itself with the issue of consolidating the schools themselves, although, according to some, the two questions need to be kept separate. A small rural district can opt to close its school and tuition its students to larger schools of the family’s choice. “The last act of local control is to give up local control and give parents choice,” Altemus said. A small school district can also close its school and designate another school approved by a majority of voters.

The spectrum of possibilities has fueled discussion in the media and on the street. Supporters and detractors of school district consolidation have raised their voices with equal passion. Others have warned against jumping onto either bandwagon.

Montpelier resident Peter Sterling is the parent of two students at Union Elementary School.

In an email to The Bridge, he said he is cautiously open to the idea of consolidation. “I believe it is a path that must be thoroughly researched and understood by the public before it is moved forward,” he wrote. “That being said, I believe it is going to be nearly impossible to maintain the high level of quality in our schools without a major change in the near future. The tax base simply cannot sustain the current levels of school funding and the necessary increases each year brought about by the rising cost of health care, fuel, staff compensation, etc. Equally compelling is that the majority of the residents of Washington County have consistently voted on Town Meeting Day in support of a robust school budget, one that provides a modern and comprehensive educational experience to students. In other words, voters don’t seem compelled, despite the high price tag, to strip away school programs that enhance the educational experience.”

While he was not in a position to predict how a merger might be implemented, Sterling wrote, “My own personal thoughts are that U-32 and MHS are two high schools within five miles of each other and that could be a place to look [at] as a start.”

But some Washington County residents are not excited about eliminating smaller school districts. Plainfield’s Debra Stolleroff, for example, filed written testimony earlier this year against proposed state legislation that could have mandated district consolidation. The bill in question failed in the last days of the session. “There are countless education studies that address the success of small schools,” she wrote. “Perhaps, some Vermont schools are too small but all of the research agrees schools of 150-500 students are just right (depending on whether the school is pre-K-12, elementary, middle or high school). Smaller schools have higher graduation rates, less risky behaviors and soften the harshness of poverty.” She went on to declare that creating larger districts would waste time and money.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, for one, appears to disagree. “We currently have more superintendents and administration than any state of our size. We need to think of a better way,” he said in a New York Times article published on May 14.

Thus, while everyone agrees the state has a problem—the cost of education—and some school administrators are experimenting with ways to share costs, the prospect of squeezing the district consolidation trigger is generating a controversy that may not be resolved for some time to come.