School consolidation: Superintendents weigh in on costs vs. benefits

Editor’s note: Vermont is going through a remarkable change in the way it delivers education to its children, a change that could be on par with the end of one-room school houses. As lawmakers in Montpelier wrestle with what this change will encompass and how it will be managed, newspapers in the Champlain Valley Newspaper Group are seeking perspective on school consolidation from some key players in Vermont education. This week, we’ve talked with superintendents, who play a pivotal role as intermediary between students and teachers on the one hand and regulators and policymakers on the other.
VERMONT — A Norman Rockwell painting depicting children playing in front of a one-room schoolhouse adorns Milton Superintendent John Barone’s office. It’s a traditional scene that could have been modeled after many Vermont towns not so many years ago.
School buildings are still the hubs of our communities — the sites of town meetings, concerts, potlucks and other gatherings — but the educational needs of today don’t meet the idyllic models from the past, Barone said.
“Most New Englanders would say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said. “Our system is broken, and it needs to be fixed, and we need to keep in mind always what’s best for kids.”
For years, Vermont has discussed the pros and cons of school consolidation, and now the Legislature is considering another bill, H.883, to eliminate supervisory unions in favor of a number of large school districts. The goal is to improve education while addressing its ever-rising cost in the face of declining student enrollment [see sidebar]. After 35 budgets failed on Town Meeting Day, there seems to be some momentum behind H.883.
If passed, the bill would reduce by the year 2020 the number of municipal school districts from 282 to 45, eliminate the state’s 60 supervisory unions and require the formation of regional school districts. Those expanded districts would operate under one board, a minimum of 1,200 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12, and at least four municipal districts.
Ned Kirsch, superintendent of Franklin West in Georgia, says our education system is not preparing students for employment in this day and age.
“We’re well into the 21st century and I think one of the issues that confronts us is schools are built on the industrial age model,” Kirsch said. “Are we closer to the post office or are we closer to Amazon as a system?
“I know we’re closer to the post office,” he said. “I’d rather have our school systems be closer to Google.”
Kirsch believes school district consolidation would provide an opportunity for larger communities to discuss what type of education they want and come up with a cohesive vision, rather than the current model where smaller, individual communities often pursue different improvement agendas than neighboring towns.
He doesn’t have all the answers for how schools should change, but with consolidation, Kirsch said, schools couldn’t deliver education in the same old style.
“We’ll really have to have that huge conversation,” Kirsch said. “I think it would lead to a different kind of schooling.”
Franklin Northeast Superintendent Jay Nichols in Richford sees a future where consolidated school districts can offer more individualized learning opportunities for children. In fact, they could open up more opportunities in general for students, by enabling districts to set up magnet schools, and free up resources to offer more diverse courses.
“We need to focus on the big concepts — critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration,” Nichols said. “Our governance system that we have right now sometimes gets in the way of that.
“We’re locked into these traditional buildings and traditional structures.”
Nichols is a fan of school choice, and he says bigger school districts could allow students to attend a school that better meets their needs. He pointed to Enosburg Falls High School, which offers nine Advanced Placement classes while Richford, in the same supervisory union, offers two. In a consolidated system students might not be allowed to attend only the school in their hometown. In some cases, that school may not even be the closest to their residence, Nichols pointed out.
“Students should be able to decide where they go to school,” he said.
One need only look at the way information technology is shrinking distances and breaking down barriers around the world to understand that today’s youngsters are growing up to become global citizens. As such, they will be competing against workers in other countries. They also may work for foreign companies while never leaving their own home in Vermont, Nichols said.
“The structures we have right now can stand in the way,” he said.
Some supervisory union heads note that efforts to coordinate education across schools in a supervisory union are already under way, but mandating it through governance consolidation could speed things along.
As an example, Rutland South Superintendent Dana Cole-Levesque points to the Orange South Supervisory Union in Randolph, where the superintendent has all the towns in the union working together; they recently came within a few votes of consolidating the governance under a Regional Education District.
“They have uniformity of curriculum, sharing of resources, and shared facilities management,” said Cole-Levesque.
And as a result, he added, the superintendent there was able to “put a lot of focus on student learning outcomes, he’s able to support principals in instituting best practices and instruction, he’s able to have them share amongst themselves what those best practices are, and how do you have the greatest impact in classroom instruction and thereby improve student learning outcomes.”
For Cole-Levesque in Clarendon, consolidation would bring efficiency, which would serve not just the taxpayers, but also the students.
“I could share resources more easily and I could focus on what I see as my responsibilities, which are educational leadership and improving outcomes for students. I could do that more effectively if I did not have to spend my time getting ready for the next board meeting,” said Cole-Levesque, who said he attends 100 meetings a year.
“When you’re getting ready for the next board meeting that’s not time you could be spending looking at how well kids are performing in classes or how better I could support instructional practices,” he said. “I see from a systemic standpoint the potential to be better educators by bringing all of our schools under a single district.”
As a supervisory union, Rutland South has already consolidated its technology, support services and busing, and this year it is bringing special education into the central office.
“We’re doing a lot of centralization, but yet we still have to go out and meet with each board, which still has jurisdiction over its school,” he said. “It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of energy and it takes a lot of resources to do that.”
Barone in Milton agrees. He formerly worked in the Barre Supervisory Union central office, where he oversaw three school districts, two faculty contracts, three school boards and three sets of policies. The system made it difficult to share staff, vision and costs, he said.
Having one school district for several schools rather than several districts would save time and money, particularly in negotiating contracts for teachers, transportation and food service, Barone said. Mass purchasing could save dollars, too, he added.
Make no mistake about it, saving money is certainly a part of the school consolidation debate.
Observers point out that Vermont over the last 10 years has seen declining enrollments but not a commensurate decline in staffing or educational costs.
Vermont Agency of Education statistics show that statewide public school enrollment was 94,623 in fiscal year 2004, and 86,113 in fiscal year 2013 — a 9 percent drop. Over that same period the number of teachers and paraeducators went from 12,529 to 12,569. And the National Center for Educational Statistics shows that per-pupil spending in Vermont rose from $9,806 in fiscal year 2002 to an estimated $18,571 in fiscal year 2012 — an 89 percent increase.
Promoters of school consolidation say that if cutting the number of districts and boards doesn’t cut spending on education, it will at least slow or halt its growth. Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, for instance, has said that H.883 will “bend the curve in education spending.”
“No one is saying we’re going to save money right off the bat, the efficiencies will only be realized down the road,” Cole-Levesque said.
He pointed to an example in Rutland South. When he came to the supervisory union four years ago, school buses were owned by individual school districts. They each had their own bus replacement fund, did their own maintenance and hired their own drivers. During his second year they consolidated the buses into the supervisory union and as a result upgraded all of the buses, cut down on maintenance costs and consolidate some routes.
Three years in, the supervisory union is spending the same even though fuel costs have doubled.
“It’s not dramatic or instantaneous, but it’s efficiency,” Cole-Levesque said. “It also saves boards a whole lot of time from having to address those issues.
“Systemic improvement improves efficiency of operations,” he said. “Over time, it has the most dramatic potential to bend the cost curve to better match education spending with student populations, and that obviously has to happen.”
But consolidating resources across schools can only go so far, some superintendents say. And doing away with many local boards that can sell school budgets to citizens could be a recipe for disaster.
Rutland Northeast Superintendent John Castle in Brandon has created efficiencies and saved money by contracting with the Abbey Group for food service at all seven RNeSU schools, and by consolidating busing. He said administrators RNeSU look at ways to save money and streamline services every year.
Nevertheless, he wouldn’t look forward to putting a single, consolidated budget before voters in the seven towns in the union. He said consolidating all the school’s budgets into one would result in a spending plan of $30 million, give or take.
“I got to be honest with you, I’m not sure I want to put a $30 million budget forward that people have a disconnection to,” he said. “With centralized bureaucracies there is at the very least a healthy skepticism of us; and the potential for a very removed public, that actually could create a level of distrust, and that would concern me.”
According to numbers crunched by the RNeSU Business Office, because of the shift in accounting and spending under a consolidated budget, the tax rate in Brandon, which failed on Town Meeting Day, would actually go up.
Many Vermonters like to make decisions for themselves and simply trust decisions made closer to home. As a result, school consolidation is a tough sell to many.
An example of local control in action occurred last month at the Whiting annual school meeting, where all the voting was done from the floor, just as it has for over 250 years. Whiting, population roughly 420, serves 39 students in grades kindergarten-6.
When discussion at the March 4 meeting turned to the local school budget, School Board Chair Carol Brigham explained that the federal funds used to pay for the Whiting school’s preschool program dried up. The school board debated the issue and decided not to include the $25,000 in the Whiting School budget to pay for the program. The Whiting preschoolers could go to the Neshobe School preschool program in Brandon.
Instead, the Whiting community on Town Meeting night voted from the floor to add roughly $25,000 to the budget to fund the preschool program themselves.
“That’s the perfect example of local control,” Castle said. “But I could see some people say that that’s what’s wrong with our system. Should decisions about what’s best for our children be made by people closest to our children?”
While the Vermont School Boards Association is working with the Legislature to craft H.883, some local school boards are already set against it because members say they will lose control of their schools. Last week, the Rutland Northeast and Rutland Addison supervisory union boards both passed resolutions rejecting H.883, in part because they said it pressures small schools to close.
While some backers of school consolidation say it would offer a greater breadth of educational options to students in small schools, Castle said small schools already offer more than some larger schools. For example, he said, in the realm of technology, a small school may not have a computer lab, but will have a one-to-one technology teaching environment and computers for each student.
“Some of our small schools provide as strong if not better learning opportunities at times than large schools,” he said.
Castle said often what small schools lack in resources, they make up for in making connections with students and support systems within the school.
“It’s a value thing at times,” he said. “Someone may value language, and someone else may want more social studies time.”
Superintendent Nichols in Franklin Northeast said school consolidation doesn’t have to mean small schools would close.
“We wouldn’t close any of our schools,” he said.
Instead, he suggested that small schools could become centers for certain specialties.
But when it comes to consolidation leading to fewer board members, Nichols is  all for it. He pointed out that too much local control can lead to conflicts of interest. On every board in his supervisory union at least one board member is related to a school employee. With larger consolidated boards that’s less likely to occur, he suggested.
Even consolidation advocates acknowledge that changing the legal ownership of school buildings, adding infrastructure and merging policies — not to mention teacher contracts — could be a logistical nightmare.
And given Vermont’s geography, with rivers and mountains that isolate some communities, Milton’s Barone said consolidating schools would not work everywhere. It might not be in students’ best interest to shuttle them on buses to a central school, he said, and it’s costly.
And a central school would mean bigger classes for some. Research shows smaller class sizes lend themselves to one-on-one attention and better results.
Castle observed that Vermont is going through a socio-cultural change, and he said Vermonters must balance the need to modernize, streamline and stay current with the rush of technology and education policies while staying true to the state’s rural roots.
“We’re a society that’s at a crossroads, and I think Vermont is at a junction between being a rural state and trying to operate within the context of the 21st century and the conventions of a more suburbanized environment,” he said. “We’re not willing to accept our identity as a rural state with rural communities. There’s a sense that we need to modernize, that bigger is better.
“Vermont’s identity, the townships, the rural character, has persisted a sense of community that is identified with the local town more so than with other states in our country,” Castle said. “I don’t think we should reject that, I think we should embrace that.”
Nichols takes a different tack.
“Local control is very important, but I don’t think local control at the level we have it in Vermont makes any sense,” he said. “We need to redefine what local means.”
Nichols pointed out that there are fewer than 60 students per school board member in Vermont.
“We’ve got to get away from this barely post-Civil War structure we have in place,” he said.
Barone likes the Rockwell painting on his wall in Milton. It’s a comfortable image of school days steeped in nostalgia. But he sees the image for what it is and wonders if Vermont schools’ fondness for small classes and low student-teacher ratios is sustainable.
“We’re going to have to have a real hard look at: Can the taxpayers of the state of Vermont continue to financially sustain those small school districts?” he said.
This story was reported by Courtney Lamdin of the Milton Independent, Michelle Monroe of the St. Albans Messenger, Polly Lynn of the Mountain Times and Lee J. Kahrs of the Brandon Reporter. The story was edited by John McCright of the Addison Independent. The Champlain Valley Newspaper Group also includes the Essex Reporter and the Colchester Sun.

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