At Monday’s legislative breakfast, Weybridge resident Fran Putnam asked an important question concerning a legislative proposal to consolidate school governance districts as drafted in H.883: “Before we totally throw the baby out with the bathwater,” she said, “we really need to think about: What is the problem we’re trying to solve, what is the goal here, and is this the best way to do it?”
Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, answered that question in part:
“H.883 is an effort to bring new, better opportunities for our students and do it at a reasonable cost,” he said.
Specifically, H.883 is designed to move the state’s antiquated school governance system and redesign it to be more effective to match the needs of today’s students. The biggest change would see the state’s 282 school districts realign into what would be around 50 expanded K-12 districts. Efficiencies and more cost effective approaches to teaching is the objective, achieved by the advantages of a larger scale and better planning within a school district.
One of the driving issues prompting the discussion is the fact that more than 40 percent of Vermont high school graduates fail to go on to higher education. Part of the problem is schools are failing to adequately teach a relatively large segment of the population increasingly defined within lower-income families. The other part is the increasingly high cost of post-secondary education, the lack of adequate student aid and the need for these students to hold jobs while also attending secondary or post-secondary classes.
Critics of H.883 shortchange the bill as a way to simply consolidate school boards to eliminate meetings for administrators, while offering no concrete solutions to cut school spending. That misses the point. The purpose is not to consolidate districts just for the sake of having fewer meetings to attend, but rather to change how Vermont schools can discuss the problems facing education in today’s world and work across school district boundaries, if necessary, when seeking solutions. Currently, it is nearly impossible to engage in long-range conversations within existing school districts (let alone between districts) because it requires such an enormous undertaking. In the UD-3 school district, you have the Middlebury Union High School board, the ID-4 (Mary Hogan board), the ASCU board and separate elementary school boards for Ripton, Salisbury, Bridport, Weybridge, Cornwall and Shoreham. That’s nine boards with anywhere from five to a dozen or more representatives on each. Then consider that each board member is representing his or her own school — rather than a larger public good. Parochial interests override measures that might improve educational outcomes for students at the district level.
The consequence? Change stagnates and the status quo lingers on.
In a field that is changing as rapidly as education should be to keep pace with today’s changing economy, stagnation equals failure.
H.883 is the first step needed to initiate new discussions between schools and seek common purpose to improve student outcomes. It is not the silver bullet. It is but a small step that hopefully starts a process of discovery and innovation that is surprisingly difficult to do in today’s system.
Realistically, the legislative goal for this session is to pass the bill through the remaining committees in the House and achieve House passage. The Senate would take up the bill next year.
Skeptics of the bill should ask two questions: Why has the current system not been able to contain education spending over the past few years despite declining student enrollment, and why is the rate of students going onto higher education so low despite the increasing need for a higher education to secure jobs in today’s highly competitive economy.
At the breakfast, two telling comments were made about H.883 and the school culture we have today:
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, astutely noted that voluntary change is unlikely: “A (school) board will never vote to do away with itself… I think we ought to ask ourselves questions about whether this kind of consolidation is good for the educational product, what we can deliver to kids; and whether it might provide some efficiencies.”
Rep. Michael Fisher addressed the issue of rising costs within the school system despite declining school populations: “If we are going to bring down the costs, we are going to have to bring some of the decision-making power away from people who are closest to the communities. That’s a disturbing comment to make, but it’s true.”
If the broader community wants to improve the quality of education and reduce costs, it won’t be by maintaining the status quo. To get there, the public will have to embrace the necessary steps toward change and working through that process to achieve improved metrics. Our leaders and elected officials in the House can lead the way by approving H.883 and sending the bill on to the Senate for further discussion and amendment.
Angelo S. Lynn