Opinion: School consolidation has plusses

In a recent letter to the editor, Orwell resident Paul Stone argued the Senate and House education bills were mainly aimed at two goals: closing small schools and getting rid of school boards to put more power in the hands of bureaucrats, not citizens. That is a pretty cynical view.
Let’s be realistic. Small schools are already closing due to declining enrollment and high costs, and the enlightened trend among school boards is to do more governing, and less managing, as it should be.
How about a more optimistic view of “consolidation”? First and foremost, the Senate and House education bills speak to consolidating school governance, not schools themselves. In the Middlebury area, for example, this would mean that all of the towns of the Addison Central Supervisory Union would become one large school district governed by one board. Town borders would cease to exist for school purposes.
The positive possibilities include:
•  Students being able to attend the school that is really closest to them.
•  Schools with shrinking enrollment could join forces and offer K-3 in one school and 4-6 grades in the other, thus keeping both schools open. Making that happen today is extremely cumbersome.
•  Schools could take on educational themes such as the environment or arts, and kids from different towns could attend.
•  Staffing could be shifted around all schools, not just within one. Rather than the one “new” teacher in a school of six teachers always being in fear of losing his or her job due to budget cuts, reducing staff levels through retirements, etc., would be much more likely within a larger system. That job insecurity is a significant contributor to turnover.
•  Much better accountability to the citizens for all school spending. Today, supervisory union budgets, which include the expenses of the central office (superintendent, special education director, tech support, special education expenses) are approved by a board, not the voters, and then parceled out to the individual school budgets in the form of an assessment. Today, the ACSU budget of over $7 million faces no citizen vote.
•  Attracting topnotch school leaders — and keeping them. Superintendent turnover is a major problem in Vermont. Pay is lower than other New England states and having to answer to a half-dozen school boards or more (nine in the ACSU) is a major disadvantage to keeping good people.
There will be economic savings, too. For example, in the ACSU, the business office must produce individual budgets and regular finance reports for nine school boards (Mary Hogan, Ripton, Salisbury, Cornwall, Weybridge, Shoreham, Bridport, UD-3 and ACSU). Imagine the staff savings of that work being done for one school board and one school system.
Another example: In the shadow of the state capitol, Montpelier operates one relatively small school system with its own superintendent, business office, special education system, etc. Meanwhile it is surrounded by the U-32 district with all the same functions. This is unnecessary duplication.
Yes, all these changes require a new mindset where borders fall, and “local” takes on a new, broader meaning, just as it did when Vermont moved from one-room school houses. However, great opportunities abound, leadership stability will improve, and a bigger view of “our kids” will benefit all.
Will schools close? Yes. As the state removes various subsidies such as the small schools grants and phantom students, and towns faces the real cost of educating kids in very small schools, those citizens will face difficult questions — new legislation or not. Finding innovative solutions, however, is much harder today under a cumbersome system built on tight town borders and so many school boards.
I look forward to the opportunities and advancement consolidated governance can bring for all our kids, not just the ones in my own town.
A final note: This letter represents my own opinion and not necessarily that of the UD-3 school board, of which I am a member.
Peter Conlon, Cornwall

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