Opinion: Local control key in education spending

Town Meeting on Saturday in Starksboro featured a lengthy discussion with key players in the state’s, the county’s and the town’s education deciders.
Joining our debate, in addition to our local school board, were Superintendent David Adams and Rep. Dave Sharpe, chair of the Vermont House Education Committee.
What was most striking to me as the conversation touched on local control versus consolidation, and on minimizing tax burden versus maintaining educational quality in our small elementary school, was that there was a tremendous amount of frustration with lack of control over the supervisory union (S.U.) budget.
While several staff cuts at Robinson Elementary were being proposed — cuts that would trim costs by $136,000 — the S.U. budget is ballooning from about $2 million in 2014 to over $7 million in 2016. I understand that this wallop of an increase is largely due to directives from the state for the S.U. to centralize functions such as tech services and special education. Yet there are many huge increases in line items that seem to represent an unnecessary amassing of money and power at the top. It is infuriating to see the S.U. budget skyrocket while we are being asked to sacrifice at the local level. Most maddening of all is that we have no direct vote over the S.U. budget.
This current gut-wrenching situation has got me thinking about “local control.” Judging from the relative passivity of our local school board while Superintendent Adams jumped up to address nearly every question regarding the staff cuts at our small school, we have already lost local control. We are already consolidated. The umbrella budget and decision-making has already slipped out of the hands of our local school board and the voters of the town.
So, I see a tremendous amount of logic to the House Education Committee’s current plan to do away with S.U.s and, in their place, enable towns to form a consolidated district in place of the S.U. At least this would afford us a vote over the budget that has the largest effect on our taxes and seems to be spinning out of control.
Granted, in the scenario envisioned by the Legislature, we will lose the ability to vote on our particular school budget, although we could still have a school board to watch over the quality of education there. To balance things out, I hope our legislators, led by Dave Sharpe, will consider provisions that:
1.      Give individual town school boards the power to veto certain line items of the consolidated district budget, and/or
2.      Allow towns in the consolidated district a percentage (maybe 1 or 2 percent?) of the overall district budget to be earmarked as discretionary spending. In other words, each town school board might have something like a block grant that could be used for certain programs deemed favorable by the townspeople, such as Chinese or daily wellness classes.
3.      Make it straightforward for towns to disband a consolidated district should the experiment prove unacceptable.
Matthew Witten

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