Last month Gov. Phil Scott put out a call for a statewide education summit, and more than 300 people took part in the meeting which was held at Norwich University on Monday.
Scott was criticized when he introduced a plan to address Vermont's education spending problem towards the end of the last legislative session. Now, as lawmakers get ready to return to the Statehouse in January, Scott wants to begin the conversation early.
The governor's Education Summit had to be moved to a cavernous gym on the Norwich campus because there was so much interest in the issue.
And even with a couple of inches of snow in the forecast, school administrators, school board members and lawmakers from across the state showed up to discuss Vermont's education system.
The governor said it's been about 20 years since Vermont moved to a statewide education funding formula that funnels all school property taxes through Montpelier.
And since then, Scott said, the Legislature has passed a long list of education laws that tell local school boards how they can spend their money.
"With a statewide funding formula, and a single state education fund, there is no doubt that Montpelier has inserted itself into education decisions more and more over the past several years," Scott said.
Over the past 20 years the number of students has fallen while school budgets increase, putting intense pressure on taxpayers.
Scott said Vermont's education system was built to teach about 120,000 students, but there are fewer than 80,000 in the system today. This year alone there's a projected $80 million deficit in the education fund.
The summit was billed as a way to bring together school board members, superintendents and educators from across the state, to hear about some of the ideas they might have to change that trajectory.
The governor said he was eager to hear from the group, but he also stressed that it was time to make serious changes to how Vermont staffs its schools.
And Scott said he would propose a plan next year to address what he called an "urgent need" to transform the education system.
"I understand the fatigue and frustration regarding education reform," Scott told the crowd. "With all the work you've put into these initiatives I also recognize many of you are concerned and apprehensive about what might be asked of you next."
Vermont spends a lot of money on its schools, but the state does pretty well on national standardized tests and our high school graduation rate is above the national average.
But Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe said the state is not doing enough to prepare its students for life beyond high school.
Among the New England states, Vermont has the lowest rate of students who go on the college, and this is happening at a time when there's an increase in the need for educated employees trained for high-tech jobs.
"It's not that we've been doing a bad job, but the world has changed — through technology, through economic restructuring — so that what we have always done is no longer good enough," Holcombe said.
For part of the afternoon, people met around small tables to share ideas and then report out to the larger group.
While it's hard to dispute the numbers driving the concern about school spending, educators say many of Vermont's kids are coming to school with significant issues that require resources.
And while the total number of students is falling, North Country Career Center teacher Karen Chitambar said the services they need are on a steep and troubling incline.
"We couldn't help but address the elephant in the room, and that is surrounding how opiates and poverty are impacting our schools and how we do business," Chitambar said about the discussion her group had at the summit. "So what does that look like? It looks like we're trying to serve students who are traumatized, and that does in fact require a variety of school staff with a variety of professional skills — everywhere from mental health to just being a trauma-informed educator."
In his letter that was sent out in November inviting the education community to the summit, Scott said he'd share proposals at the meeting.
There were no concrete ideas talked about Monday, but it's likely that education spending will once again be a major topic for the governor, and for lawmakers, as the upcoming legislative session gets underway.