Editorial: Shorts — a bevy of news

  So much happened in local news this week that we’ll limit editorial comments to several shorts on a few of the more interesting issues:
School Finance
• On school finance reform, we feature two stories on the front page: One covering Gov. Peter Shumlin’s remarks at Addison County’s weekly legislative review in Vergennes in which he defends consolidation of some of the state’s smallest schools. As a counter to that perspective, we publish a story on two Rutland County supervisory unions in which those superintendents defend their small schools and the economic efficiencies they have developed.
Readers should note one significant missing detail in those conversations — the definition of small schools. According to the Baker Report, which the Shumlin administration has been using to make its case for limited consolidation, a small high school would be anything under 400 students in the four grades (9th through 12th.) According to the Baker study, the same could be applied to elementary schools, though the administration’s standard is far lower — perhaps 200 or fewer, would be a fair standard, according to a recent conversation with Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe.
If that’s the case, none of the union high schools in either Addison or Rutland County would be targeted as small schools, though several of the smallest elementary schools (with enrollments under 100 in the seven grades, K-6) would be defined as small schools.
That said, it’s also apparent that consolidation at some of the smallest schools would cut costs. According to the Baker report, the equalized spending per pupil in 2014 among elementary schools of varying sizes that are connected to a union high school (as all of Addison County’s school districts are) were: $14,570 per pupil for schools under 100 students; $13,703 for schools of 100 to 500 students; $12,929 for schools 500 to 1,000.
Moreover, H.361, the education reform bill passed out of the House Education Committee, does not mandate changes immediately but rather leaves it up to local districts to decide the issue with the understanding that state aid in the form of small school grants and accounting for “phantom students” would be phased out a few years down the road. That is providing local control in making those decisions, while also coming to practical terms with a current system that perpetuates cost inefficiency. That is particularly true with elementary schools that have fewer than 50-75 students over 7 grades.
The math is easy to grasp with just two numbers: labor accounts for about 80 percent of the cost of running a school; Vermont has a current student-teacher ratio of 4.7 to 1, the lowest in the nation. With student populations decreasing in the near term and for the next decade, the trend continues and the cost to taxpayers gets worse.
Navigating a way toward cost-effective schooling is something, as the governor says, we must do. Doing nothing is not an option.
Lathrop ruling in Bristol
That the State Supreme Court unanimously rejected the 2013 decision of the Environmental Court as ruled by Judge Thomas Durkin is a slap to Durkin’s judgment in this particular case and underscores either an inherent bias in such matters or a misunderstanding of his court’s jurisprudence. It was an egregious ruling by Durkin when he found in 2013 that the Lathrop’s 2003 iteration of its proposed gravel pit should not be subject to further public scrutiny and Act 250 review even though significant changes were made to the plan in following years.
To that end the importance of this week’s Supreme Court ruling is that it preserves the significant role of the Act 250 process to vet construction projects and ensure they are open to public comment and input.
The ruling may not be the end of the process for the proposed Lathrop gravel pit at the 26-acre site that lies just across the New Haven River from the downtown. Rather, the case was remanded back to the district environmental commission and town zoning board, if the project is to move forward. But even if the project starts over, it’s sure to be a very different conversation and the result of meeting Act 250’s criteria, if successful, will make it a much-improved proposal the community can embrace.
Health care reform:
While at the legislative luncheon in Vergennes on Monday, Gov. Shumlin picked up the health care reform torch again to suggest the state had to move forward with plans to change the essential structure of medical care away from fee-for-service and toward an outcomes-based model.
“This is the crazy thing about our health care system,” he told the crowd. “It’s driven by quantity and not by quality and outcomes. I think Vermont could be the first state that changes that.”
It’s that big idea — to change something that seems so obviously wrong and detrimental — that intoxicates the governor and drives him to pursue initiatives just a little further than prudence may dictate, such as clinging too long to the idea of a single-payer system even though the finances would have been ruinous to the state if implemented.
We appreciate his willingness to tackle big ideas, but it’s equally important to identify what’s affordable and in the best interests of Vermonters, and to move in that direction in a steady and unwavering manner.
Media circus
Our man, John Flowers, found himself at the center of a national media circus this week when he became the media expert on the Lynne Schulze/Robert Durst story. John has been covering the Schulze missing person story since 2005, and followed up a year later and again in 2011 and 2012. With that knowledge base, he broke the story of the possible Durst-Schulze connection on Monday with an online post that went national. Two hours later the Addison Independent began receiving calls and emails from news agencies across the country and by Tuesday we had film crews from Inside Edition at the office doing a two hour-long interview and staged shots with John for a report Tuesday evening. Vermont news stations also called and an NBC reporter from Houston dropped by late Tuesday as well.
What it says about our culture is anything but flattering. We love intrigue and if it involves a potential murder and solving a mystery, that engages our attention even more. It’s news as entertainment; escapism from the more mundane problems of governing our towns, states and nation in ways that are just and prudent. I get it, but as a bit player in what was once the proud business of informing the public of the important issues that need to be addressed (and still is at the community level), I find it a bit discouraging that such events become the unseemly circus they are.
Don’t get me wrong about John’s coverage of this story. From day one, he’s approached it with compassion for the Schulze family and genuine interest in finding closure to their loss. That’s why the family released their one statement on this recent development through the Addison Independent, showing that good journalism without the hoopla still has its rewards.
Angelo S. Lynn

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