Over the past 25 years, there’s been a recurring battle at the Statehouse over whether the consolidation of school districts should be mandated by the Legislature. It's a debate that's surfaced once again this year.
Under a plan passed by the House last week, all school districts would have at least 1,100 students. To put this figure in perspective, right now, roughly 80 percent of all school districts in the state have fewer than 500 students and 30 percent have fewer than 100 students.
Smaller districts would have until 2017 to merge with a neighboring district. If they don't act by that time, the state board of education would assign them to a new larger district.
Bristol Rep. Dave Sharpe, the chairman of the House Education committee, says the state is facing a crisis because the cost of education is rising, while student enrollment is declining.
Sharpe also notes that a plan adopted several years ago that provides financial incentives for districts to merge has only been used once. That's why he thinks setting a deadline is essential.
“There’s concern about the mandate and making people make decisions by some sort of deadline, but I think that without a deadline the decisions are likely to be put off in a way that hurts kids and costs more money,” Sharpe says.
Unlike previous consolidation plans, Sharpe says it's important to remember this bill does not actually draw the geographical boundaries for the new larger districts. The boundaries will be determined by the interests of the smaller districts.
“If you get yourself involved in the conversation, if you think about what's best for your students what matches you with other communities in your neighborhood and make an honest effort, and you present that to the state board, then you're on the path,” Sharpe says. “It's not a top-down mandatory.”
The next step for the bill is a review by the Senate Education committee. If a mandatory deadline is included in the bill, Washington Sen. Ann Cummings, the chairwoman of the committee, wants it to be phased in over a relatively long period of time so that smaller districts can plan for the change in an thoughtful way.
“I would like to go as far with voluntary as we can,” Cummings says. “I think local schools have played an important part of Vermont democracy and local government since probably before we were a state. And I tinker with that with great reluctance."
Cummings says there's nothing magical about using the House's 1,100-student threshold as the minimum size of a new district.
Instead, she thinks all schools should be evaluated based on their curriculum and their budgets. Under this approach, high-spending districts that fail to meet state quality standards would be merged with other districts. And moderate-spending districts that meet the quality standards could remain exactly as they are today regardless of their size.
“My committee is starting to talk about quality, and is it more important to say, ‘You have to produce a certain quality … and you have to provide it at a certain cost.’ The sky isn't the limit,” Cummings says.
The Shumlin Administration supports the move to larger school districts. Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe is meeting with local school boards all across the state to help them understand how lower enrollment will affect their tax rates in the next five to 10 years.
The governor says this outreach effort is a critical first step.
“We're going to partner with you to figure this out, because if you don't, you're hurting your kids' quality education,” Shumlin says. “And if you think your property taxes are high now, in many of these communities, just wait. It's bargain-basement-on-sale-after-the-holidays compared to what's going to happen."
Shumlin hasn't supported mandatory school consolidation plans in the past, but he says this year is different.
"I want to emphasize, I think that that will be hardly ever necessary to use,” Shumlin says. “Because what we forget is, when you give Vermonters the data, the facts, we tend to make the right decisions, the hard decisions. And I'm convinced that's how 99 percent of this will go."
Whether or not the House and Senate can agree on a common approach remains to be seen. A mandatory district consolidation bill was backed by the House last year but was rejected by the Senate.
But legislative leaders have identified property tax reform as one of the top priorities of the session, and that's a strong indication that a compromise plan will emerge in the final weeks of the session.