On Friday, a Vermont House committee approved a bill that calls for an overhaul of the way Vermont schools are governed.
This legislation, H.883, proposes that by 2020 the state set a minimum school district size of 1,200 students -- cutting the number of districts to 45 -- by 2020.
Under the bill, Vermont’s 60 supervisory union districts would be eliminated and expanded regional school districts with one board would be formed. The proposal calls for no fewer than 1,200 students per district and at least four municipal districts. Each municipality would have a representative that would serve on a regional district board.
Currently the state is home to 282 school districts.
This consolidation is an idea whose time has come.
Vermont has a public school system with fewer than 90,000 students, according to a recent Associated Press article. At the very least, the current system would be made more efficient with the proposed streamlining.
The bill still has a ways to go -- it must pass the House and the Senate, which could take some time and may not be successful, ultimately.
But if it does work, it could save money in areas where student enrollment has declined in recent years. The average decline statewide over the past 15 years is 20 percent, according to VTDigger.org.
Another exciting part of this proposed legislation is it offers innovative ways to expand educational opportunities for students, according to Catherine McClure, superintendent of Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union.
"Like Act 153, this bill also allows voluntary coming together to form one pre-K through 12 district," said McClure, who noted there is still a long way to go in discussion on this legislation.
What’s exciting about the bill is that "There is more opportunity for waiver. It’s really encouraging to explore innovative ways to expand opportunities for students," she said.
"Kids will have more opportunities, and it may even benefit taxpayers," Rep. Larry Cupoli, R-Rutland, told VTDigger.org.
Many supervisory union districts serve as a confederation of five to seven boards. In Bennington there are seven employing boards in the SVSU and six school districts.
McClure noted the SVSU is in a better position than others in the state, "We are centralized more than any of the other SUs in the state. Many have separate individual collective bargaining agreements."
The sheer numbers (seven separate agendas must be prepared for school board meetings, for instance) and bureaucracy can make it a challenge to accomplish important tasks such as setting policies. Policies must be warned at each of the local boards, warned at each school board meeting and then finally approved. It takes a minimum of two months per policy, McClure said, but proudly noted that’s down from the previous time of three months.
Proponents of the bill say that expanding districts could result in the elimination of a great deal of administrative red tape.
Districts such as the SVSU and Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union that have historically had difficulty attracting school board members and, as is the case in the SVSU right now, a superintendent who is willing oversee multiple school boards -- would also be in a position to stabilize leadership.
Those who oppose the bill say that local control will be diminished if a regional board has authority.
H.883 lays out a series of deadlines for local school boards and the state Agency of Education to figure out how the new district lines will be drawn based on factors including historical relationships and geography.
Districts would have until July 1, 2017, to create plans for expanded districts.
It would be a voluntary process at first but if deadlines are not met an appointed group would have the authority to mandate agreements.
But, as we say in the newspaper business, sometimes deadlines are a good thing. Our hope would be that the local SUs would use their time well. Change is needed.
As House Speaker Shap Smith told VTDigger.org, "We know the system is not sustainable and while we are getting quality it’s not the best quality it could be."
Next up, the bill must pass the House and Senate.
McClure, who has worked for 32 years in central office administration in increasing levels of responsibility said she is encouraged by the momentum H.883 has gathered and the attention that it’s getting.
"Should this go forward, the boards should take the opportunity to reconvene and create a voluntary design that could be innovative," she said. "There’s so much we can do."
This is an opportunity for Vermont education to change for the better.