BENNINGTON -- When the Vermont Legislature convenes next month, it is likely to push to consolidate supervisory unions, lawmakers told school officials Monday.
Last session the Senate passed a bill that sought to cut the number of supervisory unions from 63 to 16 to improve education and reduce costs.
While the bill was not approved in the House, Rep. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, who has sat on the House Education Committee the past two years, said he expects a similar bill will be introduced in the upcoming session.
"I definitely think this is going to come up again, particularly as it relates to any kind of fiscal savings," Campion said at Monday’s legislative breakfast hosted by the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union. "What I’m getting a sense of, maybe not so much in the Legislature but among people in Vermont, that it really might make sense to start to look seriously at consolidation."
Campion pointed out that the average superintendent has a salary around $100,000 and there are also a number of other high-paying administrative positions that may be able to be reduced through consolidating supervisory unions.
Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, said she has been a part of several bills in her 16 years in the legislature that have looked at reducing the number of supervisory unions and said the Legislature needs to examine all options that will reduce costs as student enrollment continues to decline around the state.
"I hope we start looking pretty serious at what we’re doing across the state for cost savings and resource needs that possibly can be better utilized," Morrissey said.
SVSU Superintendent Catherine McClure said superintendents she has spoken with are open to the idea of consolidating supervisory unions, given that many are near retirement and do not fear job security. But determining the cost savings is not as simple as cutting duplicated positions. If a supervisory union grows in districts, students, and employees it oversees as well as geographical size, she said, it is likely more staff will be required, including more assistant or deputy superintendents.
Matthew Patterson, a member of the North Bennington Prudential Committee, asked why the state would want to mandate consolidating supervisory unions to reduce a relatively minuscule amount of the $1.5 billion Vermont spends on education.
"You’re talking about a $12 million cost of all those 120 administrators (superintendents and business managers). That’s not much of a cost savings," Patterson said.
Campion acknowledged simply reducing the number of superintendents would not have a great impact on the state budget, but said the savings may be able to be better spent.
"It’s not huge, but I’d hate to see ... something in a school system not get funded, or people hesitate around funding certain things around fear of tax increases and things like that," Campion said.
Campion also said there may be other efficiencies that can be realized through consolidation. "And it could even be bigger because really if you’re looking at a supervisory union consolidation, I think what you’re looking at is more than just the top two positions," he said.
Jim Boutin, chairman of the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center board and a former technology director for SVSU, agreed that there would be additional savings.
"I think if you just key in on the superintendent then you’re going to overlook other areas ... the business managers, the technology people, the assistants, the special ed directors. You need to look at not just the superintendents, you need to look at all those other areas you can share services," he said.
Raymond Mullineaux, chairman of the North Bennington Prudential Committee, pointed to SVSU’s collaboration with Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union to share business services as a way costs can be reduced without actually consolidating supervisory unions.
"But again, you aren’t looking at huge savings, most likely, because if you look at the total administrative budgets for SUs throughout the state it’s a small fraction of total expenditure. And whether it will support education at the local level is the real issue," Mullineaux said.
Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal, asked what a potential consolidation of supervisory unions would look like in this area and the effect it might have. The speculation of administration and school board members was that any consolidation would likely include BVSU, which has already been asked by the state to study its dissolution, and CDC.
McClure said SVSU has already began looking at its internal structure to "make sure it’s nimble enough to respond to whatever happens."
Consolidating supervisory unions would not mean a reduction of school district boards, which has also been discussed in past years in the Legislature. To date, the only laws the Legislature has approved regarding district consolidation has made incentives available to districts that voluntarily consolidate. Local school boards have studied consolidating districts although none supported doing so.
The legislative session will convene Jan. 9.
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