KEEP IT LOCAL: State Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, urged fellow lawmakers to keep consolidation local and voluntary for school districts. Her amendment was rejected by a roll call vote of 80-62.

By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Despite one lawmaker’s valiant effort to preserve local control over schools in Vermont, the state House on Wednesday voted 88-55 to force districts to merge into 1,100-student pre-K-12 education systems, or to have the Agency of Education do it for them.

As representatives discussed H.361 — the House Education Committee bill to reorganize 270-plus school districts into a few dozen large districts — a debate raged over whether restructuring should be up to local communities or bureaucrats at in Montpelier.

State Rep. Cynthia Browning, an Arlington Democrat who favors local control, urged colleagues to let Vermonters decide what’s best for their schools.

“Any school district that wishes to merge or recombine as proposed here or in any other way should do so to the benefit of their communities and their students,” Browning said.

“However, I don’t think school districts that are performing satisfactorily in the eyes of their communities should be forced into a reorganization they do not see as beneficial in order to satisfy the directions of this assembly.”

As written, H.361 tasks school boards with forming new pre-K-12 education systems. However, districts that don’t wish to merge must seek approval from the State Board of Education. About 12 districts currently meet the 1,100-student minimum.

Browning said the process turns democracy on its head.

“The state Board of Education is an appointed board. Our school boards are composed of elected members. They should not have to ask permission of an unelected board in Montpelier to continue to perform satisfactorily for their communities,” she said.

According to Browning, a more democratic approach would be to offer incentives for consolidation — such as the bill’s temporary $0.08 reduction in the statewide tax rate for merged districts — while leaving the final decision up to communities.

“If there are districts in this state that on the face of it have very good economic reasons to merge, I put it to you that they will see that and will undertake that merger themselves, particularly given the incentives in this bill.”

“Why are we imposing a mandate to reorganize, or at least beg permission not to reorganize, on every single school district of the state in order to address the problems of particular districts?” she asked.

After hearing Browning’s impassioned plea, lawmakers voted 80-62 to sink Browning’s amendment.

While a final vote takes place Thursday, this week’s action by House lawmakers may not sit well with local education leaders.

Merri Greenia, principal of Craftsbury Schools, a K-12 school system in the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, expressed disgust at the House’s vote.

“Small schools have been made a scapegoat,” Greenia told Vermont Watchdog.

“People are going to look back at this 10 years down the road and say we didn’t save a nickel and we created all kinds of havoc.”

Greenia said her school has a high graduation rate and a high percentage of students who go to college.

In addition, she said, the 170 students who attend Craftsbury have robust educational options. The school offers AP courses and five language studies: Spanish, French, Mandarin, Latin and American Sign. About half of the students play on junior varsity or varsity sports teams.

The school also leads the state in academic performance.

According to New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) rankings for 2013-2014, Craftsbury students are No.1 in math and language proficiency. The scores show that small schools can provide top-quality educational opportunities.

In fact, of the top five NECAP performers in the state, four schools have fewer than 400 students: Craftsbury Schools (170 students), Stowe Middle and High School (399 students), Concord Schools (208 students), and Rivendell Academy (217 students).

State Rep. Sandy Haas, P-Rochester, who represents constituents in one of the smaller supervisory unions in the state, explained why she opposed H.361.

“The towns I represent … have just agreed to merge with another supervisory union. We’re going to have 10 towns instead of five. And this bill tells us, ‘Thank you very much, that’s not good enough, you have to do something else.’” she said.

Haas said her local school board chose to level-fund the budget this year while reassessing the number of teachers required to deliver quality education.

“We are asking those questions at the local level, that work is going on, and people in Vermont do not need to be told what to do by this body,” she said.

While Greenia conceded Craftsbury has one of the highest per-pupil costs in the state, she said expenses and taxes are on the decline in her district, and she doubted consolidation would achieve significant savings.

“If you increase the responsibilities of a superintendent by reducing the number of superintendents, it defies logic to think there’s not going to be an equal number of assistant superintendents and other central office people who come to take on those extra tasks,” Greenia said.

Researchers who study the impact of consolidation in rural areas tend to agree with Greenia.

In January, researchers at Penn State University’s Center on Rural Education issued a policy brief on Vermont’s education reform. Among other findings, the researchers wrote that “national and local research clearly shows consolidation does not produce financial savings or lower per pupil costs.”

A 2011 study on Nebraska schools concluded consolidation results in discrimination against the poor, lower student performance, dissatisfied teachers and the fragmenting of local communities.

Greenia said Vermont officials have dismissed the research.

“The (Penn State) report was in favor of retaining small schools as the center of the community. Almost immediately the Agency of Education shot holes through the report. Before the vote today, another report came out that said small schools are really inefficient and don’t offer opportunities for kids and spoke in favor of the Agency’s point of view,” she said.

While H.361 has its critics, nearly everyone agrees lawmakers must do something to reverse Vermont’s out-of-control education spending.

Vermont spends about $19,000 per pupil on education and supports an expensive student-to-staff ratio of 4.7 to 1.

Moreover, while staffing has remained steady over the past 15 years, student enrollment has plummeted by more than 20,000 students, driving up costs for property taxpayers who fund the education system. Vermont ranks 48th in property tax burden, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.

State Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, chided colleagues who voted for the bill, saying, “This is not what Vermonters have been clamoring for. This is not what they sent us here to do.”

Browning said forced consolidation was not the Vermont way.

“How would Vermont feel if Congress down in Washington, D.C., said to Rhode Island and Vermont, ‘You guys are really small. This is inefficient to have these two different states. We think you should merge.’ … That’s the message this body is sending the hard-working members of all our school boards.”

Contact Bruce Parker at bparker@watchdog.org

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