Education bill proposes single districts

BRISTOL — The House Education Committee is drafting a new bill that would eliminate the state’s more than 60 supervisory unions and replace them with larger school districts that advocates believe could do a better job sharing resources while carrying fewer employees.
That was the news delivered at Monday’s legislative breakfast by Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, who chairs the House Education Committee. It’s a panel that is looking at ways of cutting public school bureaucracy and changing the manner in which education is financed. Some residents have complained that many of Vermont’s supervisory union office budgets continue to grow while schools within those unions are being forced to cut staffing due to financial concerns.
There are 62 supervisory unions in the state containing around 250 public schools.
The House Education Committee’s bill has not yet been assigned a number. It proposes to eliminate the state’s supervisory unions. Instead, the schools within each supervisory union would become their own, single school district. For example, it would mean that Mount Abraham Union High School and the five elementary schools serving Bristol, Monkton, Lincoln, New Haven and Starksboro in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union would become one district with a single budget.
“There would be one (education property) tax rate for the district,” Sharpe said. “And we believe that would lead to immediate business 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.”
It’s a plan that would also allow school districts to reduce their administrative and paraprofessional positions, according to Sharpe.
“It is perceived that the overuse of paraprofessionals in the special education category is a problem, and there are some exciting pilot programs in the state where classroom aides are used instead of one-on-one aides and they are having much better results with student behavior… ” Sharpe said.
The bill would also eliminate small school grants for schools that decline to join a larger school district, according to Sharpe.
“If a larger district is formed, that larger school district gets to keep that (grant money) to help run those schools efficiently and deliver education to the kids,” Sharpe said. “We believe this will create a stronger educational system for our children. We know we have problems in two areas: Educating children from low-income families and inspiring our graduating youth to go to education beyond high school. We need to do a better job in those two areas, but we need to do it without spending more money.”
The legalization of marijuana was another key area of discussion at the legislative breakfast. Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Hinesburg, has introduced a bill that would legalize possession of small quantities of pot. The proposed legislation is getting little traction at the Statehouse as the list of opponents gets longer and longer. Members of the state’s law enforcement community have made clear they don’t support legalizing pot, in part because of the lack of tools to measure impairment of drivers who might be high. On Monday, Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, added her voice to the growing chorus against Vermont becoming the fifth state to legalize recreational marijuana.
“(Legalizing marijuana) would take months and months and a lot of money to figure out,” Nuovo said, alluding to a recent RAND Corp. report on the subject.
Nuovo presented a list of eight steps the state would have to take to ensure that federal authorities would not intervene in a legalization effort in Vermont. Among those steps are assurances that the state would not allow pot to be purchased by anyone younger than 21; that it not be diverted to other states; and that it not be possessed or grown on federally owned properties.
Nuovo also raised questions about how a marijuana law would be enforced; how children would be kept from consuming foods that might be laced with the drug; and how Vermont could prevent a “black market’ for the drug if the taxes associated with it were high.
“It is not an easy task,” Nuovo said.
Others joined Nuovo in criticizing the marijuana bill.
“There are enough potheads on the road right now,” said Bridport resident Bill Keyes, 85, noting the growing number of crimes in the state that are influenced by drug use.
John “Peeker” Heffernan is a Bristol selectman and a member of the executive board of the Vermont State Firefighters Association.
“The executive board, along with the majority of our members, have voted to oppose this bill,” he said, “because we are in the roadways when this is happening and there is no way to test for it. We’re afraid that it’s going to put our lives and other people’s lives in danger.”
Paul Boivin of Addison has been a rescue squad volunteer since 1977, and spoke with emotion about the tragic toll that drug and alcohol abuse has had on area families.
“I can’t tell you what it’s like when you have to go tell a parent… that ‘your son or daughter has been killed because of an impaired driver.’ That is the worst job you can ask anybody to do, and it’s done day-in, day-out, all the time. We can’t control alcohol and we can’t control the illegal (drug) substances. How are we going to control (pot) when we legalize it?”
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, gave a pot legalization bill little chance of passing the state’s highest chamber this year.
“The sense of the Senate, that I get, is ‘Not now.’ We want to wait and see what’s happening, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done if we are going to do it,” she said. “I have mixed feelings about it and I will wait for more information. At the moment I wouldn’t vote for it; we’re not ready.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, recently joined the House Appropriations Committee. It’s a panel that she said has given her a clearer picture on the impact that substance abuse is having on the state budget. Drug abuse, she said, translates into demand for more resources for the state’s court system, prison system, recovery centers, schools and unemployment services.
Sen. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, said he would view any marijuana legislation through a prism of public safety.
“I would be opposed to looking at (pot legalization) as a revenue opportunity,” Bray said.
The siting of solar arrays also prompted discussion at the breakfast. Monkton resident Steve Pilcher urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would give citizens and local boards more of a say in the permitting of utility projects — particularly solar farms  — within their communities. The Vermont Public Service Board currently has autonomy over the permitting of such utilities. This has caused frustration in several Addison County towns, including New Haven, where a large number of solar arrays have been built during the past couple of years.
“It seems that a change in the powers that the PSB has in this regard would be beneficial,” Pilcher said.
Bray acknowledged Pilcher’s concern, which has become widespread. He said Vermont is coming to grips with a major shift in the manner in which its power is delivered — from centralized generation stations in more urban areas, to the now-scattered, smaller facilities in rural Vermont.
Bray is chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, which will play a role in any legislative changes in solar siting. He promised his committee will hold some public hearings to gather testimony on possible changes in the permitting process.
Public input will be key to making progress on solar siting, Bray said.
“As Gov. Snelling once said, ‘The best way to kill an idea in Vermont is to make it a mandate,’” he said.
Legislation that would eliminate the so-called “philosophical exemption” that allows some Vermont parents to avoid having their children vaccinated against various diseases was another topic of consideration. A national measles outbreak has provided more impetus for lawmakers to have the exemption removed — a move some local residents on Monday urged lawmakers to take. Among them was Lincoln resident Claude Rainville, who contracted polio as a youth in 1955. He spent 100 days in the hospital and left on crutches. Though he has long since shed those crutches, he explained that he never fully regained his mobility.
“Vaccinations are very important to keeping our people healthy,” Rainville stressed.
Addison resident Mark Boivin said he contracted whooping cough at age 4.
“I could not take air into my lungs, no matter what I did, for a little over 24 hours,” he recalled. “My view is that if you consider waterboarding torture, then any parent who does not vaccinate their children against whooping cough is guilty of torturing their kids when they get it.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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