Vermonters care deeply about local schools and that passion was on display Tuesday night, as dozens of people testified in the House Chamber on a proposal that would have a profound effect on their relationship to local schools.
Parents, superintendents, teachers, district business managers and school boards spoke about why they support or oppose the Legislature's long-range plan to eliminate some 282 local school board districts and replace the current system with 30 to 60 districts statewide.
Those who testified against the proposal - largely citizens, school board members and parents - said that eliminating local school boards would undermine local control. Boards with more students and fewer school board members would put power in the hands of the representatives from larger towns, they said. And in the end, they said such a dramatic change in school governance would lead to higher education costs and less than desirable student outcomes. Local school boards, they said, know best how to control costs and meet the needs of students. Many also worried about the impact of district consolidation on private schools.
An equal number of professional educators, business managers, school members and members of the public argued for consolidation of school boards. They argued that the current system destabilizes efforts to create standards for best teaching practices and unified curriculum and also makes it difficult for districts to share resources such as accounting services and back office support. Because the districts are a "loose confederation," a disruption in leadership - such as the departure of key school board member or administrator- can destroy an overarching vision for a supervisory union's educational goals.
Lawmakers say changing the way schools are governed will improve curriculum development, teaching practices, access to data and ultimately lead to better educational outcomes for students.
A secondary result, they say, could be potential cost savings and more stability for taxpayers through better management of financial resources.
The bill is being drafted by the House Education Committee. Committee members have not yet settled on key components of the legislation, including the timeline, the criteria for districts and how the Legislature would be involved in the process.
The deadline for the "education governance" plan is July 1, 2020. The timeline is broken down into the development of criteria for the formation of districts (spring 2014); and the formation of a work group that would assess the legal and fiscal impact of smaller districts on school choice, tax rates, representation, collection of data and accounting (summer/fall 2014).
Reports on the fiscal and legal impacts of school board consolidation would be due to the General Assembly by January 2015.
School boards would be encouraged to voluntarily realign districts between 2014 and 2017. The minimum district size is four K-12 school districts with at least 1,250 students. A design team would work with local officials in districts that have not found a way to realign voluntarily.