The House Education Committee approved a bill last week that would enact historic and sweeping changes in the administration of education in the state. Justifications for the bill are vague at best. If Gov. Peter Shumlin supports it, he would be repudiating a promise made to voters never to force consolidation on local school districts.
It is easy to talk about education with vaguely positive language that means little. That is the language used to justify the new bill. There is talk of sharing resources among schools in larger districts and of allowing schools to be more creative. There is talk of administrative savings, even as the new bill acknowledges the millions of dollars that must be spent to allow consolidation to happen and the new personnel that would be required to facilitate the process.
Intentions behind the bill are good. Lawmakers want to improve education in Vermont. They look at the multiplicity of school boards in the state and conclude that the stateís system is inefficient and costly. How much easier it would be if a superintendent in, say, Brandon would have to deal only with one school board, rather than with school boards from Brandon, Pittsford, Whiting, Sudbury, Goshen and Leicester. Why does each of those little towns need its own school board and, for that matter, its own school?
They donít necessarily need them, but when it comes down to it, voters in many small towns have decided they prefer their local schools and the public boards that administer them. What could be more natural than a merger of the schools in Sudbury, Whiting and Leceister? But residents didnít want it. The new bill would force those towns to give up their boards, electing members of a larger districtwide board.
What does it mean for a district to share resources? Classes need teachers, and they will continue to do so. Being in a larger district wonít mean that the district will need fewer second-grade teachers. And since salaries are by far the largest cost borne by school districts, savings would be elusive. Already, supervisory unions are sharing resources when they employ music, art or physical education teachers that move among schools. Would a larger district save money on the bulk purchase of supplies? It can do that now.
Many of our small schools are vibrantly creative places overseen by local school boards and citizens who are seriously invested in them. Why disrupt the community bond that connects citizens, their local boards and their schools? When schools are struggling, resources are available at the supervisory union to help schools improve. Is the assumption of the new bill that all those small towns cannot be competent enough to run all those schools? The problem of incompetent principals or teachers will not go away because of consolidated districts. In fact, board members closer to the ground might be better able to handle tough personnel issues than a larger bureaucratic entity further removed from the problem. If outside help is needed, it can already come from the supervisory union.
Administrative savings are likely to be minimal under the new scheme. The central offices at present account for less than 3 percent of school budgets. The new bill foresees that school districts will have to pay out millions in salary adjustments and legal fees if consolidation occurs.
Gov. Shumlin has consistently said he would not force local school boards to consolidate their districts. But that is what would happen if school districts did not voluntarily choose to consolidate ó which makes the process far from voluntary.
Resistance to the changes envisioned by the House Education Committee need not be seen as a curmudgeonly, conservative reaction to change. If better education were a likely result, then these changes would be worth contemplating. But no one has explained beyond vague language about creativity and resources and choice how education would actually be improved. It is easy to see how the democratic process would be harmed and how community involvement in education would be eroded, which could end up causing actual damage to education in Vermont.
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