Ed chief seeks fewer school districts

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca on Wednesday served notice to local school directors that the state’s public school system will have to go through a substantial transformation in order to adapt to diminishing revenues, lower student numbers and ever changing technology.
Vilaseca made his remarks at a gathering of the Addison Central Supervisory Union school board in Middlebury. The commissioner, who began his job about a year ago, has been making his rounds to local school districts to introduce himself and share his ideas for revamping Vermont’s public education system in response to some dramatic financial and demographic shifts.
He explained his vision includes expanding education opportunities for students — both in and out of the classroom — within a public school system featuring more technology but fewer school supervisory unions, administrators and teachers. Those larger school districts, Vilaseca said, would ideally include more opportunities for distance learning through computer technology; greater choice, in terms of allowing students to attend specialty programs that could be hosted at different schools throughout a supervisory union; and enhanced school-business partnerships that would give learners hands-on experience in the real world.
He believes tailoring the public school system to such priorities could improve the quality of education and make schools better equipped to navigate through some choppy financial waters.
Vilaseca, who was politely received and fielded several questions from the couple dozen community members and educators at the meeting, spent some time on Wednesday outlining the sobering financial forecast.
“I want to acknowledge what a tough budget year it has been for you, and it is not going to get any easier next year, and the year after that,” Vilaseca told the school board.
He noted there is approximately $40 million of federal stimulus money built into Vermont’s education fund this year. He explained that a similar federal infusion is not in the cards next year.
“Now we have $38 million to find to fill that hole, along with the reductions in state revenues coming from taxes,” Vilaseca said. “It is two negatives coming in this case.”
This means that Vermonters will have to either pick up that financial slack through local education property taxes, or cut school budgets and services.
Vilaseca believes communities have already gotten off to a good start in making tough spending decisions. He said the Vermont Department of Education had projected school budgets statewide would cumulatively increase by 2 percent. Instead, they came in essentially level funded.
It’s a downward spending trend that Vilaseca said will have to continue in order to reflect what has been — and will continue to be — lower student counts in Vermont.
He noted the state currently has 51 supervisory unions and 290 governing school districts to serve a declining student population of approximately 92,000. Vermont’s student population since 1997 has been declining at a rate of around 1.5 percent per year, according to Vilaseca, a trend that is not likely to level off until 2014-15.
At the same time, school budgets have been increasing as more teachers have been added to the payroll in spite of the decline in student numbers, Vilaseca said. The state currently has a student-teacher ratio of 11-1, he noted.
“For every four students we have lost in Vermont since 1997, we have added a staff member,” Vilaseca said. “There is no way we can continue that in the future.”
The Vermont Board of Education and Vilaseca are advocating, among things, that the number of supervisory unions in the state be substantially reduced, and that there be increased school choice and innovation within those larger districts.
The Board of Education has intentionally not advocated a specific number of reduced districts, in order to give the Legislature flexibility in studying the concept and weighing in with its own opinion. The Education Transformation Policy Commission — a panel charged last year with recommending options for improving and streamlining the state’s public school system — suggested the number of Vermont supervisory unions could be pared back to 20, or even 13, Vilaseca noted.
“I don’t know what the magic number is; there is no magic number,” Vilaseca said.
The state Board of Education, according to Vilaseca, is prepared to support legislation that would:
• Reduce the number of school boards. He credited the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union for attempting to accomplish that very task through a referendum this coming Town Meeting Day.
“I think it’s a great model for the state,” Vilaseca said of the ANwSU’s one-board proposal. “If it works, it is the first group to do it and would provide an opportunity for others.”
• Expand school choice for students.
• Establish and maintain a unified curriculum for the each individual district.
• Achieve economies of scale, in terms of providing education in as cost-effective manner as possible.
Vilaseca acknowledged that his views on school governance and consolidation have garnered most of the headlines from his office. But he stressed that his primary concern is “student outcomes.”
“We are in unprecedented times,” Vilaseca said. “But even if we weren’t in a budget crisis, I would be advocating the same things.”
John Flowers is at [email protected].

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