Opinion: Single-board option moves system into modern era

Editor’s note: The writer is a member of the UD-3 school board and a retired public school elementary teacher.
Though I am a school board member, the views expressed here are my own.
A recent Independent headline, “School consolidation: cost vs. benefit,” is wrong twice. First, H.883 would not consolidate schools. Only school boards could do that. The bill would consolidate school boards. Second, there are opportunities under a single-board system to reduce cost and benefit students.
Let’s look at some facts.
First, supervisory unions are already largely unified. A single superintendent oversees all the schools. A single supervisory union board hires and evaluates the superintendent, approves the central office budget, and takes responsibility for curriculum in all schools. A single council negotiates labor contracts. A single union district board governs the 7-12 schools. It is only the elementary school boards that are not part of this unified system, and that fragmentation is what the proposed legislation addresses.
Town meeting is only part of citizen input. In a supervisory union, citizens who wish to keep tabs on student opportunity and budgets now need to attend three different board meetings: their elementary board, their secondary board, and their supervisory union board. All three hold annual budget hearings, and the elementary and secondary boards put their budgets up for citizen vote. (Supervisory union budgets are currently not voted on by citizens.) Creating single-board governance would mean only one board for citizens to focus on, and would mean a single budget to vote on that would include all spending.
That single budget brings some advantages. The board would have options in the distribution of funds among its schools. Temporary spikes in spending at particular schools could be accommodated by shifting funds, thus avoiding state-imposed penalties. This means more control would move from the state to the unified board.
The board would have a bird’s eye view of its elementary students, and could configure buildings in a rational manner, making them large enough to offer increased opportunities for students, and large enough to allow staffing to better track enrollment trends. Small schools facing declining enrollment and trapped inside town lines simply lack the options necessary to do so. Once again, union school boards in Vermont have had that power for half a century. The proposal is merely to extend those options to the elementary level.
Leadership is key. A single board allows a tight and coherent relationship between the board and its superintendent. Having multiple boards dilutes this relationship and control. Excellent school systems must have excellent superintendents. Our state has experienced a significant turnover in education leadership, with more than a dozen supervisory unions searching for a new superintendent at the same time. The unique Vermont institution of multiple boards undoubtedly plays an important part in the difficulty of attracting and keeping excellent superintendents. For a superintendent, multiple boards means spending a lot of time in redundant work, and preparing for, attending, and following up on board meetings. A single board allows more time to focus on excellence of instruction. And multiple boards may present a variety of conflicting policy requirements to the superintendent.
The supervisory union structure, invented in 1896, is inefficient, confusing, distracting and time-consuming. It scares off potential superintendents. It limits options for elementary school configuration that could expand opportunities for students and save money for taxpayers. It allows policy divergence. The single-board option, long in place for Vermont secondary schools, would provide opportunities for efficiency and expanded student opportunities if applied to all school levels. It would provide citizens with a better chance of getting the superintendents we want, improving the board relationship to the superintendents we have, and giving our school boards options for elementary school configuration they don’t have now.
Jerome Shedd

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