MONTPELIER (AP) -- The number of local school districts in Vermont would be reduced from more than 270 to around 50 under a major public school system shake-up that the state House began debating Tuesday evening.
The bill would set up a six-year process in which local districts would have an opportunity to voluntarily merge with neighbors, so long as the merged district is made up of at least four smaller districts or more than 1,000 students. Local districts that balked would be ordered to merge by a statewide "design team."
The chairman of the Senate Education Committee continued to express doubt that any major reform of Vermont’s education system would pass by the time lawmakers adjourn for the year at the end of next week.
Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, has questioned for weeks whether there would be enough time for the Senate to act when the House finishes work on the bill. On Tuesday, he said his committee does not support mandated mergers, even after local districts are first given an option.
"I think the future mandate is already off the table as far as we’re concerned," McCormack said.
Backers called Vermont’s system of school governance top-heavy, with too many school boards and superintendents overseeing fewer than 90,000 students, a vestige of the 18th century when every rural crossroads hamlet had its own schoolhouse.
Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan, D-Burlington and chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said she had spoken with one superintendent who reports to two school boards "with more members than the number of teachers in her schools."
Vermont’s current system includes dozens of school supervisory unions, in which elementary schools in multiple towns send students to one regional high school, with separate boards for each. That leaves many superintendents reporting to multiple school boards. Under the proposed system, one school board would be responsible for an entire K-12 district.
Backers also say the current system has created inequities in educational opportunities. Rep. Peter Peltz, D-Woodbury and a member of the Education Committee, cited one school that offered upper-level math classes, a range of music and art and 12 different English classes, while its neighbor failed to provide the required high school classes for admission to the University of Vermont.
But opponents said many communities love their local schools and don’t want to give up control to a regional board. Others said the issue needs more study before a new law is passed.
"We need to slow the process down, we need to do some prototypes, build some models so we can see what it’s going to look like," said Rep. George Cross, D-Winooski and a retired educator.