Rep. Sharpe pushes change in education through H.361

ADDISON COUNTY — Rep. David Sharpe doesn’t give off the aura of a salesman. His elbow-patched blazers may echo Willy Loman, but the soft-spoken, veteran legislator isn’t in the business of sweet-talking his way to a few bucks.
But however unnatural it may come to him, selling was exactly what Sharpe set out to do at town meetings in his district this week. It’s not goods the Bristol Democrat is hawking, but an education bill that would drastically change the organization of Vermont’s schools and alter how they are governed.
The bill, H.361, would consolidate the 277 school districts that presently exist statewide to fewer, larger districts of at least 1,100 students. The goals of the legislation are clear: to cut costs by increasing efficiency, and ultimately ease the education tax burden on Vermonters.
Realizing those goals is far more complicated.
Sharpe confesses that winning the support of voters, many of whom are wary of losing input over how their schools are run, is no easy task. But if anyone has the ability to turn skeptics into believers, it’s Sharpe. He’s been a longtime Statehouse advocate for education, and in February shepherded H.361 through the House Education Committee, which he chairs.
At town meetings in Bristol, Starksboro, Monkton and Lincoln, Sharpe told voters that Vermont needs to rethink the way it structures its education system, both to rein in spending and make sure students are getting the best possible education.
“We don’t do such a good job educating kids from low income homes, and we don’t inspire kids to go beyond high school,” he said at Monkton’s town meeting, noting that only about half of Vermont high school graduates move on to some form of higher education.
Sharpe added that Vermont’s education system, over the years, has become unnecessarily complex and expensive. He created a chart of the state’s education bureaucracy, crammed with overlapping boxes and arrows, to illustrate his point.
“Would anyone design something as crazy and convoluted as this?” he asked voters in Bristol, holding up the chart.
The bill, H.361, would eliminate some of those boxes. By combining districts and sharing resources, schools would be able to shed administrative staff and redundant bureaucracy. Instead of a host of school boards (the ANeSU has seven, the ACSU, 10), supervisory unions would have as few as one board.
Voters’ reception to Sharpe’s pitches at town meeting was tepid. A man at the Monkton meeting asked Sharpe if the state should just dismantle its school funding apparatus, codified in Acts 60 and 68, and leave it to individual towns to pay for their schools.
Sharpe said he understood voters’ frustration with Montpelier, but balked at the idea.
“Be careful what you wish for,” he cautioned, adding that no town raises enough in property taxes to pay for its schools. “Our communities benefit greatly from Acts 60 and 68.”
Sharpe, at the Monkton meeting, took the initiative to address a concern that many voters share — that school consolidation means residents lose local control of their schools. He acknowledged some of the proposals in the bill are controversial, but said that inaction is far more perilous than trying a new approach.
He explained what the five towns of the ANeSU stood to gain if they unified as one school district, rather than five districts under the umbrella of one supervisory union.
“We’d have one board for setting the budget, we’d have access to that budget, and we’d have one tax rate for the district,” he said. “We have to expand our sense of local — it’s not just Monkton, it’s the five towns.”
Sharpe told the Independent Friday that many voters he spoke to at town meetings expressed an aversion to changing their local schools, but were frustrated with expensive education taxes.
“I do think there’s a growing awareness that doing nothing is not an option, and this (bill) is a pretty good step to take,” Sharpe said.
The veteran legislator said the bill would also address a frustration that many voters share — a lack of local control over supervisory union budgets.
Under the present system, residents vote directly on the budgets for their elementary and middle schools, but not on the spending at the supervisory union. That budget is approved by a committee made up of school board members throughout the supervisory union.
Sharpe said voters in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union told him they’re upset they have no direct control over the supervisory union budget, even though it’s more than twice the size of the elementary school budgets.
“Recently the supervisory union budget has become so big that it dwarfs the elementary school budgets,” Sharpe said. “There’s a huge concern that amount of money is just assessed and there’s no voter input and no accountability.”
Sharpe said that this frustration has been simmering for years, but has grown recently as the ANeSU, like many others in the state, has consolidated more of its costs — such as technology and special education expenses — from the individual schools to the supervisory union level. While administrators defend the shift as one that will increase efficiency and cut costs, many voters see more line items move beyond their control.
Sharpe said this anger was partly responsible for the rejection of budget proposals for Mount Abraham Union High School, Monkton Central School and Bristol Elementary School. Longtime five-town residents said this was the first time in decades voters said ‘no’ to a high school budget.
The bill could address some of these voter frustrations,Sharpe said, by consolidating all of a supervisory union’s school budgets into one large spending plan voters would have direct input on and control over spending.
Sharpe tempered his support for the legislation at these town meetings by noting that there is no magic bullet when it comes to reforming the state’s education system, and that further tweaks and changes will likely be necessary in this and future years.
He said he was unsure whether H.361, if it passes the Legislature unchanged and is signed by the governor, will prevent voter revolts like this week in Addison County, where residents rejected five school budgets. That’s because, Sharpe said, voters said ‘no’ for a variety of reasons.
“Many of the voters wanted to spend more, and many wanted to spend less, so it’s hard to say how this will affect votes in the future,” he explained.
But Sharpe did say that any move to increase transparency and voter input in the budget process is likely to gain support at the Statehouse and in communities across the state.
“Taxpayers are willing to pay if they’re getting their money’s worth,” Sharpe said.
Consolidation could take many forms in Addison County, Sharpe said, from combining schools to simply sharing resources. He said some northern Addison County residents say a logical move would be to combine the Addison Northeast and Addison Northwest supervisory unions (they already share a football team); he also heard from Lincoln residents interested in exploring sharing resources with Ripton.
Sharpe wasn’t the only legislator taking the temperature of voters last week. Sen. Chris Bray, who went to 10 town meetings last week, said education was a topic that dominated many of his conversations with voters.
 “I heard two messages that traveled together: People do want to control costs, but they don’t want to give up the quality of education,” Bray said.
 Bray said he’s not convinced that school consolidation will decrease tax burdens, but said there are other benefits of consolidation that are equally important to voters. He said small schools stand to gain from sharing resources because they can offer more opportunities to students that independently they are unable to provide.
 “The most compelling reason around consolidation, in the case of the smallest schools, is by combining with other schools they may be able to offer higher quality programs,” Bray said.
The full House will take up H.361 when the Legislature reconvenes this week.

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