Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe says the state's new education reform law provides smaller schools with a governance framework that could help them stay open in the future.
Without these incentives, Holcombe says it's inevitable that a number of small schools will have to close.
Critics of the new law are concerned that many small schools are doomed once the proposal is fully implemented.
Here's why they're worried: The law calls for all school districts to have at least 900 students. This will have an impact because right now a third of Vermont's school districts have fewer than 100 students.
This means that a number of smaller districts will need to merge with their neighbors, and it will lead to the creation of new district wide school boards. Critics say that change will inevitably lead boards to close schools.
Holcombe has a very different point of view. She argues that maintaining the status quo will hurt many small schools.
“I have to tell you that we are in the process of seeing places where some small schools are discussing closing now. So I think that that is a potential possibility, regardless of this law,” Holcombe says.
And Holcombe says some schools have been able to stay open only by cutting back on programs.
"So if you offer a small elementary school program and you don't have any art anymore and you don't have music, or you don't have access to foreign languages, but then your kids are going on to systems where they're mixing with kids who have had all of those opportunities,” Holcombe says.
Holcombe says communities need to understand that they will lose most of their local control if their school is closed down.
"You'll be paying tuition to whatever school is still standing, and they'll get the benefit of your revenue,” Holcombe says. “And they'll also have the right to make decisions that you really don't have a voice in.”
Holcombe is traveling around the state meeting with local school officials. She says she wants them to understand the impact that declining student enrollment will have on their budgets and their property tax rates.
She also tells them that the new law includes financial incentives that could help some small schools stay open.
"And that's something that I know is very hard to believe, but I really encourage our community members all over this state to talk to people who've been experimenting and grappling with this challenge to hear what they've discovered,” Holcombe says.
The new law calls for the larger districts to be in place in the next few years. There is a provision in the law that allows small districts to maintain their current operations if they can prove that they meet new education quality standards at a reasonable per-pupil cost.