A Vermont House panel has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would create sweeping changes to the way Vermont schools are governed. H.883 would reduce the total number of municipal school districts from 282 to 45 by 2020.

If the legislation is successful (it has to pass the House and the Senate), it will be the first time the state's home rule structure has changed since 1892 when the state went from 2,500 local school boards to a total of 300.

Members of the House Education Committee approved the bill in a 10-0-1 vote on Friday.

Republicans and Democrats alike on the Education Committee are satisfied that the legislation, which they spent weeks revising, taking testimony on and arguing over, will improve educational opportunities for children and perhaps save money, particularly in areas of the state where student enrollments have declined precipitously over the last 15 years.

Rep. Larry Cupoli, R-Rutland, says the legislation will "do a lot of good for a lot of people, especially small schools."

"Kids will have more opportunities, and it may even benefit taxpayers," Cupoli said.

Rural school districts have fewer and fewer students and less opportunity for quality educational opportunities, said Rep. Johanna Donovan, D-Burlington, who has pushed hard for the legislation. "We don't want to go back to the one-room schoolhouse," she said. "We want to optimize learning and see what we can do by being innovative."

H.883 would eliminate the state's 60 existing supervisory union districts and require the formation of expanded regional school districts with one board, no fewer than 1,200 students and at least four municipal districts. Under the plan, each municipality would have a representative that would serve on a regional district board.

Vermont has the lowest student to school board member ratio in the nation: One school board member for 57 students.

Districts that have had difficulty attracting school board members and a superintendent who is willing to oversee five to seven different school boards would also have an opportunity to stabilize district leadership, according to lawmakers and consolidation advocates. This year the state will have 15 superintendent vacancies and 30 percent turnover among principals, Donovan says.

The downside is a loss of local control. Town school district boards would no longer have direct control over budget and program decisions made at their local school. At a public hearing last week, members of the public and school board members said they didn't want to cede local authority to a regional board.

There is also grave concern about the potential for school closures in rural areas where the elementary school serves as the community center.

Politically, H.883 has a rough road ahead, though in the wake of 35 school budget defeats earlier this month, a number of lawmakers say the current system is financially unsustainable.

Still, the legislation has to pass through a double gauntlet in the General Assembly before the end of the biennium in early May, otherwise lawmakers will have to start over next January.