MONTPELIER — By a narrow margin, a school district consolidation bill cleared the House and is on its way to the Senate.
By a 76-60 vote, the House approved a bill Wednesday that would create a six-year plan to eliminate supervisory unions and consolidate the state’s nearly 300 school districts into 45-55 “expanded districts” that offer Pre-K-12 education.
Explaining his vote, Rep. Kevin Christie, D-Hartford, highlighted the bill’s stated purpose: to close the gap between the courses offered at different schools.
He noted a recent case of a valedictorian who could not get into the University of Vermont because her high school did not offer the classes she needed for admission.
“I voted yes on this bill on behalf of the children of Vermont,” Christie said. “I could not stand by when the valedictorian of one our schools could not attend our university due the inequity of the school.”
Christie, who serves on the House Education Committee, underwent several hours of questioning by his colleagues, many of whom took the opportunity to voice their opposition to the bill, which would encourage school districts to consolidate voluntarily for the first three years while creating a statewide realignment plan for those districts that do not.
“I have heard loud and clear from my local boards, local citizens and parents that consolidation of school boards will do absolutely nothing of substance to fix the real problem, which is the revenue problem,” said Rep. Susan Hatch Davis, P-Washington.
“This bill is not what Vermonters are pleading for,” said Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe. “They have been pleading for education funding reform and property tax relief.”
In a nod toward rising property taxes to support education, Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, offered an amendment that would require money to support the consolidation plan to come from the state’s general fund, which has numerous funding sources, instead of the education fund, which relies heavily on property taxes.
“This sends a strong, good message to school boards that we are serious about trying to help them by taking pressure off the ed fund and off property tax payers,” Wright said.
Wright’s amendment received near-unanimous support by a vote of 130-4.
Speaking in support of the overall bill was Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, who discussed being a teacher and being frustrated by how the current governance system, which dates from 1892, can make it difficult to enact education policy changes.
“It’s been 100 years since we had the courage to go from 3,000 school districts to the more than 250 we have today,” Sharpe said.
The bill is now on its way to the Senate, where its Education Committee is reviewing a last-minute alternative consolidation plan from the Agency of Education that would increase the financial incentives for districts to consolidate voluntarily, while doing away with the notion of an involuntary statewide consolidation plan.
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