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State officials in Middlebury for feedback on controversial education proposal

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March 12, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — State officials will be in Middlebury on Tuesday to get local feedback on a controversial proposal by Vermont Education Commissioner Richard Cate to dramatically reduce the number of supervisory unions in Vermont.

Cate and his staff are in the midst of a 30-town tour to promote new education governance ideas and solicit feedback from citizens, local school directors and administrators who would be affected if the commissioner’s plans are put into motion by state lawmakers.

“The forums will serve to get feedback that we will bring to the Legislature, to help them work through the process,” Cate said in a phone interview on Thursday with the Addison Independent. “I’m hopeful we can bring all the information people need to make informed decisions, and take it from there.”

Cate last May issued a “white paper” recommending a shake-up in the governance structure as a way for creating a more efficient public school system in Vermont.

His recommendations included:

• Reducing the number of school districts in Vermont from the current 284 to 63.

• Drawing the new school district boundaries to align with the existing supervisory union and school district boundaries.

• Reconstituting school boards to fit with the new district boundaries. School boards would consist of one member elected from each community within the new school district boundaries. Votes would be weighted to address the “one person, one-vote” requirement. Boards of districts that include fewer than five communities would consist of five members with one member from each town and the remaining members elected at-large from the district. Districts with large populations and multiple state representative districts could have larger boards with a board member from each of their existing districts/wards.

The school board of each district would appoint a superintendent as the chief executive officer and educational leader of the district. The superintendent, with the consent of the school board, would appoint the principals of the schools and the other administrators in the district.

• Providing a mechanism for district-wide teacher contracts in the new districts where there were previously multiple teacher or support staff contracts.

• Encouraging local conversations about further school consolidation if it is deemed in the best interests of students and improved efficiency.

• Allowing students and parents to choose which Vermont public school the students will attend, subject to capacity, and eliminating provisions in the aid formula related to per-student costs.

Cate has emphasized that his recommendations are not set in stone.

“The model … is intended to stimulate conversation,” Cate wrote in his white paper. “As with any idea, if anyone gives it serious consideration, it will evolve over time with input from a wide variety of people. However, it seems that we need to start somewhere if we are to have a governance conversation.”

Cate noted that Vermont currently serves 95,000 students in 284 districts. By contrast, Maryland serves 846,000 students in 24 districts, Utah educates 480,000 students in 40 districts, and Florida accommodates 2.3 million students in 67 districts.

Having fewer districts, Cate believes, would eliminate some of the bureaucracy within the state’s education system, while allowing for more sharing of resources among schools within the larger districts.

Some critics of Cate’s plan fear it will lead to the closing of some schools, particularly smaller ones with declining enrollment. They have also argued that fewer school districts will mean a loss of local control — something highly prized in Vermont.

But Cate counters that smaller schools will have a better chance for survival under his plan, because of the greater sharing of resources that could occur within the larger districts.

“I’m concerned that unless we make some changes, we will lose some of our smaller schools,” Cate said.

With 10 of the scheduled 30 public forums in the books, Cate has already received a lot of good feedback on his school governance recommendations.

He concedes that forum participants from outside of Burlington have tended to oppose the recommended changes, with “loss of local control” a recurring complaint.

Participants in Burlington have tended to support the ideas, as have “95 percent” of those who have submitted written comments to the Department of Education, according to Cate.

With 20 forums left — including Tuesday’s and one scheduled for April 11, at 6 p.m., in the Vergennes Union High School library — Cate hopes for a more diverse turnout.

“The majority attending have been school board members and former school board members,” Cate said. “We haven’t been getting, thus far, as broad a representation of people as we’d like.”

Participants at the Tuesday, March 13, forum in Middlebury (6 p.m. start in the Middlebury Union High School cafeteria) will see a familiar face leading the meeting — Robin Scheu, a former ID-4 school board member. Scheu is one of two consultants who have been hired by the Department of Education to coordinate the forums.

Following a brief presentation, participants will be broken up into small groups to respond to three questions — What are the advantages and disadvantages of the current education governance system?; what are the pluses and minuses of Cate’s proposal?; and what other ideas could be brought to the table to improve the state’s education system?

Scheu said all feedback will be written down and read by Cate, who is not expected to be present on Tuesday.

“We learn something new every time,” said Scheu.

The public feedback will eventually make its way to the House Education Committee, which is preparing legislation to address, among other things, the costs of special education, mainstream education and state/federal mandates.

Rep. Greg Clark, R-Ferrisburgh, is vice chairman of the House Education Committee. He said the panel is committed to drafting legislation in time for this session’s “crossover” deadline, which is expected to be this Friday, though it could be extended.

“We are optimistic there will be a bill before crossover, and (House Speaker) Gaye Symington has said there needs to be a bill before crossover,” Clark said. “The committee is being encouraged by the Democratic leadership to have education governance and consolidation as one, if not all, of the cornerstones of what the bill will be.”

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