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State school district plan draws mixed reaction locally

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March 15, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Past and present Addison County school officials on Tuesday gave mixed reviews to Vermont Education Commissioner Richard Cate’s proposal to reduce the number of school districts in the state from the current 280 to 58.

Around 45 people — most of them current or former school board members and supervisory union administrators — gathered at Middlebury Union High School to listen to, and critique, Cate’s ideas, which could soon be incorporated into legislation being drafted by the House Education Committee.

Cate — who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting — has suggested that whittling the state’s school districts down to a smaller number could reduce administrative headaches and allow schools to better share equipment and personnel.

The current system, according to Cate, has become unwieldy — particularly for superintendents, who are often accountable to several school boards.

“If we made (the superintendent’s) job more doable, he or she would be better able to serve the school board and the students would be much better served,” Cate said, through a recorded speech that was played by Vermont Department of Education officials at the beginning of the meeting.

But participants at Tuesday’s meeting weren’t completely sold on the idea. Breaking up into small groups, they generated lists of “pros and cons” of the current system and Cate’s plan. By and large, the groups generated longer lists of “cons” than “pros” when it came to Cate’s proposal.

Criticisms of the commissioner’s proposal included:

• A perception that communities would lose a great deal of local control over their schools. Some participants said schools are currently best-served by having their own, individual school boards, as opposed to a single district board they feared could be dominated by larger towns within that district.

“Taxation without representation is tyranny,” read one of the group’s responses.

Having fewer school board members, opponents argued, could limit citizen input and access in the running of their local school.

• The thought that “one governance model doesn’t fit all.”

• A fear that the new system would make it harder for individual schools and their boards to be creative.

• Projections that the new education governance structure will not save communities any money, which is a major concern right now.

Cate’s consolidation plan also drew some praise from participants who thought it would:

• Allow the superintendent and single school board to consider budgeting and curriculum planning for all schools within the K-12 track in their district. Having separate elementary and high schools boards does not provide for such a comprehensive view.

• Would cut down on bureaucracy.

• Make the job of superintendent somewhat easier, thereby giving districts a better shot of recruiting top candidates who are currently reluctant to work in Vermont because of the large number of board meetings they must attend.

• Would allow a district to adopt one set of policies.

Cate has vowed to read all of the comments received at each of the 30 feedback meetings that are being held throughout the state. The commissioner drew criticism from some participants who had hoped to see him in Middlebury on Tuesday.

“By the commissioner not being in attendance at all these meetings, he is missing the opportunity to engage in a back-and-forth with Vermonters,” said former Weybridge school board member Maggie Ryan. “His proposal is much too general not to be there to answer questions.”

In his recorded message, Cate said he is not attending all the meetings because he has found his presence has diverted attention to topics other than the school governance issue at hand.

Cate is scheduled to attend the school governance forum scheduled for April 11 in Vergennes. The meeting will start at 6 p.m. in the Vergennes Union High School library.

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