Lawmakers wary of school mergers

WEYBRIDGE — Local lawmakers served notice on Monday they are not enamored with a proposal to save around $20 million annually by consolidating Vermont’s 280 school districts into fewer than 50 and trimming public education personnel.
That public education consolidation plan, endorsed by Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca, is part of a “Challenges for Change” cost cutting plan aimed at producing $38 million in savings for state government. Lawmakers are currently trying to shore up a $154 million shortfall in the fiscal year 2011 state budget.
Several provisions of the Challenges for Change proposal, unveiled by the Douglas administration earlier this month, have come under some fire from lawmakers and citizens who are concerned about the potential loss of services.
The House Education Committee recently passed bill H.782, which would, among other things, create a “voluntary school district incentive program”; permit school districts to enter into contract with out-of state distance learning programs; require all districts to develop policies regarding “minimum and optimal class sizes”; and “require reports regarding the effect of merger on fiscal efficiencies, operational efficiencies, expansion of student opportunities, changes in student outcomes, and other issues.”
Local lawmakers discussed the topic of school consolidation as part of a legislative breakfast held in Weybridge on Monday.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, said the Senate Finance Committee has spent recent years studying the potential savings of consolidations in the state’s public school system.
“Our determination is that cutting back school supervisory unions is not going to save a whole lot of money,” Ayer said. “It might save some money, but not a whole lot.”
Ayer said the “real savings” would come from two or more schools consolidating in one building.
But agreeing upon such consolidations won’t be easy, according to Ayer. The Addison Central Supervisory Union recently commissioned a consolidation study that revealed some among the seven communities within the district could save thousands of dollars in per-pupil expenses by merging one or more of the district’s schools. But school officials said they realize that the benefits to a community of maintaining a local elementary school could out-weigh the savings of closing the school.
Ayer recalled serving on the Weybridge school board during the mid-1980s when that town and Cornwall were evaluating a merger in light of declining enrollment.
“It sounded like a great idea, but it completely fell apart when we started talking about kids getting on the bus — where are the little 5-year-olds going to go?” she said. “To my mind, there needs to be a way to help schools make these decisions and then help them with the finances.”
Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, serves on the House Ways and Means Committee and said he has “not seen any proposals where (school) consolidation saves money.”
Sharpe believes communities should not be required to consolidate their school boards or schools.
“I think that to the extent our communities can maintain their schools and are willing to pay for them — it is the voters who vote on those budgets each year — then that’s a healthy thing,” Sharpe said. “If a couple of communities decide to get together and consolidate their schools, I think we ought to support that, and to the extent we can put incentives in… I think that’s a good idea.
“But to mandate this statewide and to consolidate power of the scale so we have county-wide school districts and powerful superintendents, it is not my cup of tea,” Sharpe added.
Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, serves on the House Education Committee, which this session has taken testimony on several public education consolidation bills. The Education Committee developed H.782, which is awaiting consideration in the House Ways and Means Committee.
“What we are trying to do is encourage districts to come together and at least have a conversation about what could be,” Clark said.
He noted consolidation is being pushed along by tightening resources at the state level.
“If we were starting out today building an education system, our districts would not look the way they do today, but it’s hard to get to where we think they ought to look like,” Clark said. “I don’t want to mandate consolidation, but when we are dealing with higher property taxes, fewer students… ”
Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, said he believes his community would not be better off if its small community school were dissolved in a merger with a larger school.
“I see (the Lincoln school) on a daily basis being able to respond to the various needs of kids in Lincoln,” Fisher said. “We do have less money, we do need to do difficult things, but not at the expense of what we hold most dear.”
Rep. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, said local schools — beyond their educational mission — often serve as important community gathering spots.
“In the towns I’ve lived in, they have been the heart of the community; a place where you meet people and a lot of friendships develop,” Bray said. “There is a very positive contribution that they make, and it is probably very hard to put that on any balance sheet. I would hate to see us drive everything by the numbers.”
Legislative leaders have set May 1 for the close of the 2010 session. The fate of school governance legislation remains uncertain.
John Flowers is at [email protected].

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