Editorial: Education bill sets the stage for Town Meeting discussion

Consider how it might work if a legislative proposal to create a single school board per school district were approved this session. The measure, for example, would phase out the seven elementary school boards in the Addison Central Supervisory Union, the UD-3 board (representing the Middlebury Union Middle School and the Middlebury Union High School), and the supervisory union board. In their place, one district board would represent that seven-town constituency with one combined budget.
With only one budget, the district would also adopt one uniform tax rate across those seven towns — that’s Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham, Bridport, Cornwall and Weybridge. That prospect, said Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, could bring financial efficiencies “in terms of how the business office runs the books and pays their bills. There would also be educational efficiencies that would allow the superintendent and the principals to more effectively allocate staff across the schools where kids need to have staff.” Districts would also likely be able to reduce administrative and paraprofessional positions, added Sharpe, who is chair of the House Education Committee that is considering such reforms.
The proposal offers economic efficiencies by virtue of consolidation — a very business-like approach to addressing one aspect of the high cost of education in Vermont. But there is more to the proposed legislation. The proposed bill would also eliminate small school grants for small schools within districts that choose to adopt the consolidated one-board, one-budget district.
That carrot-and-stick prospect was the lead topic at this Monday’s legislative breakfast held in Bristol. With just two weeks before Town Meeting Day, it surely will set tongues wagging and local minds churning in an effort to grasp the changing educational landscape before us.
While the legislation is still being formulated, and changes are inevitable before it comes to a vote (if it does), it is still worth serious consideration and community discussion at Town Meetings across the county and throughout the state.
At issue are obvious questions:
• If such legislation were passed, would any of the area school districts elect to pursue the one-district formula? If so, are all the towns in that district comfortable requiring small schools to forgo their small school grant money and putting it into the larger budget to be dispersed as the consolidated board sees fit?
• Is larger truly better? Can one consolidated school board, with far more combined resources available, better serve the nine schools of the current ACSU with the increased flexibility and offerings at its disposal? Can it shift teaching staff and aides in strategic ways to increase student-teacher ratios to not only drive down costs but also improve educational outcomes?
• Will local control be lost, or will the local representation within the consolidated board (plus the continuation of local school committees, or any similar institution that towns may want to create) be sufficient?
• Will the proposed changes actually reduce school spending in any significant way, or is it legislative posturing that does too little too late?
• Are there students who could be disenfranchised under the new proposal, or would more students have greater access to better programming?
• Are there better ways to accomplish financial efficiencies, drive down costs and improve outcomes?
These are not questions that will have definitive answers by March 3-4, when residents from throughout Vermont will gather on Town Meeting Day. But the questions should spark community conversation and possible action; that is, towns could — and maybe should — use the occasion to create ad hoc committees to study these issues and be responsible for providing community feedback to each supervisory union board as this bill, and others, advance through the legislative process. If communities want to have an active voice in this process, they’ll need to be involved at the earliest possible stage — and that means now.
Angelo S. Lynn

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