Legislative Report 4/10/2014 - Education Governance Changes Proposed

When it comes to discussions about Vermont’s education system, the biggest focus has been the effect on property taxes.  How to finance education has been a primary concern these past weeks and the legislature took steps to reduce the increase in the statewide property tax that was projected back in March.  The other big issue is the way the education system is designed, referred to as governance in legislative parlance, and how governance affects performance and costs.  House bill H.883 has been reported out of the Education Committee to deal with this aspect, and it has become just as controversial as the financing issue.

What’s the problem?
The present system of organizing school districts was designed back in 1892.  Vermont has 282 school districts, 80 supervisory unions, and 1500 school board members for about 80,000 students.  There is one school board member for every 53 students.  Because of increasing costs, we have the highest per-pupil spending in the country.  We have the lowest teacher to student ratio, yet our student achievement, as good as it is in comparison with the rest of the country, has not increased at the same rate as our spending.  Furthermore, the governance structure is not conducive to stable educational leadership, resulting in a 30% turnover rate of principals and superintendents.

What is being proposed?
H.883 is a school district consolidation bill.  It proposes to eliminate supervisory unions by the year 2020.  Existing school districts would be realigned into expanded districts responsible for the education of pre-Kindergarten to grade 12 students.   Each expanded district would serve a minimum of 1250 students or four pre-existing districts, although waivers could be requested under certain circumstances.  PreK-12 districts would be formed recognizing historic relationships between communities, existing school districts and potential geographic obstacles.  Existing school districts would have until 2017 to self-determine their alignment in a new or currently existing preK-12 district.

What does it hope to accomplish?
The goals of this legislation include (1) creating more cohesion in curriculum, professional development and accountability, (2) the ability to share resources and create more options for students, (3) opportunities for all students to prepare for the 21st century marketplace, (4) leadership stability throughout the system, and (5) potential savings in education delivery.

What effect will it have on CSSU?
CSSU has already consolidated many functions at the supervisory union level.  This has allowed sharing of resources across the five PreK-8 schools it serves.  It currently operates with 5 PreK-8 school boards, a CVU school board and a supervisory union school board.  Under H.883, all of these boards would be reorganized into a single board with representation from each community unless one or more member districts chose to realign with other districts.  Since some schools have an increasing student enrollment and others a decreasing enrollment, possibilities would exist to share classroom and staff resources as well. 

Some are critical of this plan because they perceive a potential loss of local control over curriculum and budget.  Others doubt that the plan would actually achieve savings.  Everyone, however, seems to agree that the current system is unsustainable.  While some supervisory unions already operate fairly efficiently, there are other parts of the state that are constrained by size, geography, and lack of resources.  There will continue to be debate over this bill in the House during the coming weeks.  Whether it gets to the full House for a vote remains to be seen.  I have received several comments both pro and con about this bill, and I have actively sought the views of current and past school board members I had not heard from.  If the bill is not passed this year, it will probably be reintroduced next year.  In the meantime, we can continue to learn more about the concept.