End of Small School Grants would hit home

ADDISON COUNTY — As lawmakers wrestle with education funding reform this winter, one idea that has gained some favor in Montpelier is ending “Small School Grants,” extra funding to smaller schools that helps them keep their doors open. Gov. Peter Shumlin, for one, made that recommendation in his Jan. 15 budget address.
In recent years the Legislature has tried to address what lawmakers see as cost inefficiencies in smaller schools by passing laws to encourage unification within and between school districts.
Now, according to the chairman of the House Education Committee, lawmakers are scrutinizing the extra funding for the state’s small schools. Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, said it is too early to say how and how soon the Legislature might halt the payments, but the idea is on the table.
“I do believe that this has traction,” he told the Independent. “The form and timetable are uncertain, as is whether or not it is part of the carrot/stick approach to encouraging school districts to ‘right size.’”
What is clear, said Addison County education officials, is that ending Small School Grants to the one-third of Vermont schools that receive them would be felt here.
The board of Addison Central School, projected to have 71 students next year, has just proposed a $1.54 million budget. According to Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent JoAn Canning, the school is projected to receive an $87,000 Small School Grant.
That grant thus could provide 5.6 percent of the ACS operating revenue.
“That’s one way to spin it,” Canning said. “Another way is $87,000 is an experienced teacher with salary and benefits. And right now we are at class size. I would say we cannot afford to lose a teacher. That may throw us into a three-grade multi-age classroom, or larger class sizes that we feel are neither consistent with our policies or beneficial to kids.”
In the Addison Central Supervisory Union, six of seven elementary schools received Small School Grants. Bridport Central, which has 85 students, will only receive $4,695 next year, according to ACSU office figures, but the numbers are bigger in five other schools:
•  Cornwall’s elementary school (77 students), will get $81,858, an amount equal to 5.4 percent of its proposed 2015-2016 spending plan.
•  Ripton Elementary School (43 students) will get $63,994, or almost 7.3 percent of its proposed 2015-2016 budget.
•  Salisbury Community School (101 students) will get $72,131 or almost 4.3 percent of its proposed 2015-2016 budget.
•  Shoreham Elementary School (70 students) will get $85,035, or 5.7 percent of its proposed 2015-2016 budget.
•  Weybridge Elementary School (54 students) will get $70,017, or almost 4.7 percent of its proposed 2015-2016 budget.
Given the potential effect of taking away those grants, ACSU Superintendent Peter Burrows said ending them should only occur as part of a larger reform to Vermont education funding.
“It’s a significant impact. What is the impact if there are other changes to the formula?” Burrows said. “That’s where I think legislators need to look at what is the overall model going to be. How does it affect all constituents, every student in Vermont?”
Any plan to end them should call for a phase-out over time, said Canning.
“Jumping off that cliff and removing all of those dollars at once will be really devastating to a lot of those small schools,” Canning said.
The math also suggests why Sharpe’s committee is looking at Small School Grants — smaller schools are more expensive to run.
Per-pupil costs for tax purposes come out lower once the state’s complicated equalized student formulas are applied, but operating costs for small schools now routinely top $20,000 per student.
If Addison’s budget is approved again, the per-pupil cost of running the building will be almost $21,700 — $1.54 million divided by 71 students.
The numbers for Ripton — $21,060 — and Weybridge — $20,370 — are comparable.
Meanwhile, the current actual per-student costs at Vergennes Union Elementary School ($16,385 based on 260 students and a $4.26 million budget) and Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary School ($16,412 for 405 students and a $6,647,165 budget) are lower.
Officials say those schools also have capacity for more students.
But the value of schools to their communities and the issue of younger students traveling also factor into the discussion, officials said.
“I’m not a proponent of having kindergarteners on the bus for an hour,” Canning said.
Burrows said the parents’ and residents’ involvement also provides educational value.
“The school is the locus of the community, and I think students benefit greatly from the community’s engagement in local schools,” he said. “Small schools do have a great amount of community identity, and that’s important for a student.”
Canning said some towns might have to decide how much to value their schools and ultimately consider other options.
“This conversation is not just a school conversation, but a community conversation. If communities want to see their own communities viable, we’ve got to look at things differently,” she said. “Those school buildings have been the hub, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be occupied in other ways to serve the greater community. It’s a tough conversation.”
With increasingly popular demand for property tax relief and more cost-effective education (Vermont ranked fifth in the U.S. in per-pupil spending in 2012, according to a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, study), the larger question becomes how to move forward on an issue that has stymied the Legislature.
Sharpe said debate on the Small Schools Grants started in December when a task force commissioned by House Speaker Shap Smith came out with several proposals.
“Many of the responses to the Speaker’s request for suggestions to improve Vermont’s K-12 education system propose some form of school district expansion (unification), and that certainly is on the table with phase-out of the small schools grants and changing how we deal with decline of student population,” Sharpe wrote. “We are also considering simplification of the school funding system.”
In December, that task force outlined three basic approaches:
• A “Renovation Plan” that would adjust the existing system, including imposing stiffer tax penalties on schools with the highest per-pupil expenditures, ending Small School Grants, encouraging school consolidation, and exploring a statewide teacher contract.
•  A “Variable Income Tax Model” that would reduce reliance on property taxes in favor of using income taxes to raise most education revenue. According to a Vermont Public Radio report, income taxes would vary from district to district, depending on spending at local schools. Proponents believe because all Vermonters would be affected by income taxes, more would become involved in the school budget process.
•  A “Regional Block Grant Model” in which the governor and the Legislature would set annual education spending and create “regional educational entities” and then send them block grants based on the number of local students. The regional entities would then decide how best to divide the money among local schools.
It is only within the larger discussion of these models that Burrows believes Small School Grants should be considered.
“If we’re looking at overhaul of the funding formula, we need to look at all of our schools across Vermont and make a determination about what makes sense moving forward,” Burrows said. “Entering into the session and making a blanket statement about we’re going to stop this and this without looking comprehensively at all the other moving parts is not an approach that is effective.”
Canning emphasized unification. She said it would be up to ANwSU boards to revisit the issue in her district, but as a general principle it allows school leaders more time to focus on education, not on redundant board meetings; offers cost savings in the long run; and provides more equal opportunity to all students because smaller schools cannot offer as much.
“I believe over time we could save money because of the efficiencies and the scale of developing budgets and mitigating the highs and lows that happen,” Canning said. “But to me it’s really about opportunities for kids as well. Once you see that there is some success at a local level, people might be willing to look at more large-scale unification.”
Burrows said at this point he has confidence in the ACSU elementary schools, some of which, like Addison Central, have multi-age classrooms and share some part-time teachers and specialists.
“When you look across our elementary schools currently, there is not a great degree of variation in terms of the courses being offered,” Burrows said.
But he acknowledged a point could come as enrollments continue to decline at which those measures might not be enough for small schools in ACSU or around Vermont.
“We haven’t had to completely reduce those opportunities, like art and music and P.E., but there’s a breaking point,” Burrows said. “I’m not sure what that tipping point is, because in some ways it’s a community tipping point. If you look at the schools that have closed across Vermont, the tipping point has been a different number.”
Overall, Burrows said he sees “glimmers” in the proposals put forth this past December. He does want lawmakers to remember one thing, however, when they tackle the question.
“When experts come in from the outside, from out of the state, and look at what we do here,” he said, “they say we have the most equitable funding formula of any state.”

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