Vermonters feel passionately about their local schools, and that passion was evident on Wednesday night as people from around the state came to testify at a hearing in Montpelier.
The topic - school board consolidation - drew people into the Statehouse from the most rural and most populous corners of the state.
In all, 56 people told lawmakers what they think of H.883, a proposal that would reduce the total number of school boards from more than 270 to 45 over a six-year period. The plan eliminates existing school districts and supervisory unions and creates new expanded districts with 1,250 students. H.883 would give school district officials deadlines for planning and implementing mergers, and resources to pay for legal and accounting costs.
Vermont has the most localized school governance system in the nation. There are 1,440 school board members in the state, or one for every 56 students.
Student enrollments have declined over the last 15 years by 20 percent statewide, meanwhile, costs - and property taxes - have continued to climb. On Town Meeting Day, 35 school budgets were rejected, and there is a growing sense that the state needs to make structural changes to the educational system and the way the Vermonters pay for it. H.883 is designed to realign school districts; it does not address the funding mechanism for K-12 education under Act 60/68.
Citizens spoke in two-minute intervals for two hours at the hearing Wednesday.
There were more supporters of school board consolidation than opponents at the hearing. Twenty-three people testified against H.883, while 33 spoke in favor of the proposal. The testimony started out with mild outrage from opponents directed at the 20-plus lawmakers from House Ways and Means and House Education committees.
Many of the proponents were school board members and administrators who believe that the current system must be changed in order to ensure that students receive adequate educational opportunities. The governance structure now in place, they say, is a relic of the 19th century and it must meet the needs of students in a modern society.
Too much money is spent on administration and duplicative financial services performed by multiple districts in one supervisory union. Districts are not sharing resources at a time when budgets are strapped, they say.
It is also a matter of equity, proponents say. The education system is not benefiting low-income students in poorer districts, many of which have seen declining enrollments. Under the current system, proponents say some districts are not able to afford supports for low-income students, nor are they able to offer enrichment programs including AP classes, music, art and language courses. They believe the system is dysfunctional and consequently schools are unable to deploy resources effectively at a time when budgets are tight and taxpayers feel squeezed.
Emily Long, the board president of the Vermont School Boards Association and a school board member for 20 years, said her supervisory union has 10 districts, 12 boards and 48 board members. Bringing the boards together to make important decisions to improve education is "nearly impossible," she said. "None of this is conducive to creating the best opportunities for students."
The state is "at a critical juncture and it will take strong leaders," Long said, to move ahead with the school board consolidation.
David Finney, the former president of Champlain College, said Vermont is a "demographic train wreck."
"We don't have enough young people, and our children are being insufficiently educated," Finney said. "I'm here tonight to talk about the bottom half of students that are failed by our current system. Our participation in higher education is the lowest in nation. The bottom half our kids are functionally illiterate. H.883 is not perfect, but it's a step in the right direction. I urge you to pass the bill and do the right thing for these kids."
Julie Coffey, executive director of Building Bright Futures, said research has proven that high quality pre-K programs is a proven way to improve the health, social welfare and economic opportunities for children over the long-term. Thirty-eight percent of Vermont children tested for kindergarten readiness are not ready to learn and consequently they begin school already behind, Coffey said. Under the current system, she said, Vermont can't afford to make pre-K universal.
Grant Geisler, a past president of the Vermont Association of School Business Officials, touted a white paper his organization produced in 2010 that shows $30 million in savings and improved student outcomes with a coordinated, preK-12 curriculum across larger districts. Geisler said if districts were expanded, schools could share staff and budgeting and accounting would be simplified.
A director of finance from the Essex Town and Westford school districts said her supervisory union uses four different employee ID numbers and has four treasurers, four different bank accounts, four separate accounts payable and four separate purchase order systems. The union has two business managers, two superintendents and two curriculum coordinators.
"I can't imagine it (H.883) wouldn't save in efficiency," she said.
Opponents say H.883 will destroy the fabric of local communities, harm local control, erode private school choice, lead to less participation at town meeting and eliminate a rung on the political ladder. They also say it won't save money, and it will ultimately lead to the closure of small schools.
Voluntary attempts to merge districts, they say, have been a failure. A number of the people who spoke said that they tried to consolidate with other districts under Act 153, but their efforts were difficult, time-consuming and ultimately unsuccessful. They worry that a mandatory merger program will distract educators and communities from the attention that needs to be paid to students' academic welfare.
Instead of realigning school districts, the state needs to revamp Act 60/68, the education finance law, they said. The law, enacted in 1996, created the nation's first statewide property tax system in order to equalize spending from district to district. Many opponents of H.883 say the law is outdated and out of whack. The result, they say, is higher taxes in districts across the state.
Jim Peyton, a school board member from Lunenberg, said his district is sparsely populated and includes 148 students, 96 of whom are educated in local K-8 schools. Peyton says his communities conducted a consolidation study. "It turns out no one wanted to consolidate with us, and, likewise, we didn't want to consolidate with them, either."
"We don't want to lose schools and jobs," Peyton said. "We've done a great job keeping budgets down. Other states have tried this, and they are sorry they went this way and they have higher costs. It won't save money in Essex County. I, for one, would like to see a moratorium on this legislative body for two years."
A school board member from Middlesex said that his board has worked closely with the principal at Rumney School and that connection would be lost with H.883. The bill, he said would eliminate 80 percent of school boards. "If I tried that with the present (legislative) committee, I'd be talking to four of you," he said.
Another board member from Roxbury who opposes the legislation said "perception is reality for the electorate you serve. The carrots of 153 didn't work so now state will try a stick. People don't like to be forced to do anything, especially when the carrot didn't work." What really needs to happen, in his view, is a "reverse engineering" of Act 60.
Sarah Peacock of Grand Isle County said school board members are volunteers who serve because they are passionate about their community schools.
"I'm having a difficult time understanding why the Legislature would pink slip half of its volunteers," Peacock said.
Mylan Miller of Williamstown described H.883 as a "one-size fits all" solution that will hurt his board's efforts to improve learning opportunities at his school.
If the Vermont Legislature approves H.883, which still has a long way to go in a short period of time, it would be the first restructuring of the state's education governance system since 1892.
The bill is now in the House Ways and Means Committee, which will make a decision about its fate in the next few days.