Guest editorial: Was the legislature hoodwinked by school officials on Act 46?

I am distressed by the proposals for school closings in Addison County. The Legislature’s Education Committees took many weeks of testimony over a six-year period regarding how we move forward as a state in providing quality education for Vermont children in a way that taxpayers could afford.

As the chairman of the House Education Committee during those years, here’s what we heard:

•  Testimony from principals and the Principals Association told the committees that the principal’s job would become much easier and that they would be better able to address the educational needs of their students if we consolidated school governance and administration.

•  Testimony from superintendents and the Superintendents Association told the committees that they could be much more efficient in delivering educational services to their children because of the flexibility in the use of staff members and far less bureaucratic paperwork associated with multiple workforce budgets and other issues. Those administrative costs could be substantially reduced in order to mitigate the pupil costs increasing due to loss of students, if we consolidated school governance and administration.

•  Testimony from business managers and the Business Managers Association told the committees that financial management costs would be greatly reduced (by 30 million dollars statewide) with the simplified bookkeeping costs associated with keeping track of spending for one larger district rather than several small school districts, if we consolidated school governance and administration.

•  Testimony from curriculum directors told the committee that they would be much better able to design and implement school curriculum that met the needs of their students in an equitable manner to raise the educational achievement of all students, if we consolidated school governance and administration.

•  Testimony from school board members and the School Boards Association told the committees that small schools would be better able to survive and thrive in a larger integrated school district, if we consolidated school governance and administration.

With all this testimony the legislature, in concert with two governors each from a different party and overwhelming vote of legislators from all parties and the Agency of Education, passed and put into place a plan to get most of Vermont school districts to a goal of 900 students.

Now, several years into implementing the plan in Addison County, we have not seen the promised reduction in administrative staff in school buildings or in the superintendent’s offices. What we are seeing instead are proposals to close community schools against the specific intent of the legislation and the wisdom of many community members.

Were we hoodwinked into permitting a power grab by superintendents and school administrators? Or do voters need to continue to speak up and help design the kind of integrated school districts envisioned by the Legislature and what is best for the children in our communities?

Let us keep in mind every day that our children are our greatest resource and the school budgets need to be affordable by taxpayers.

MOUNT ABE BUDGET

I have had much difficulty disassembling the MAUSD school district budget and understanding the proposed budget for 2020. This is what I think I found and this is certainly subject to correction, if I’m mistaken. Student population has decreased by 66 students over the past two years. There is a commitment to no reduction of staff and the administration budget has increased.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is our students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch (FRL), who are the students most costly to educate. While the Mount Abe school district has close to 45 percent free and reduced price lunch students, the district just north of us in Chittenden County has a 5 percent FRL student population. There is a pupil-weighting factor in place, but I don’t think it even comes close to meeting the additional needs of lower income rural Vermont students.

Because of this inequity between districts one solution might be for the legislature to change the per-pupil weighting formula so that more resources ($) are directed to districts with a higher percentage of students eligible for free or reduced price lunches.

However, I’m not sure pleas to change funding will find any traction in Montpelier until we have done our best in our Addison County communities to meet the challenges of larger integrated districts.

David Sharpe is a former state representative from Bristol, who served on the House Education Committee for several years, including as Committee Chairman.

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