Monday, May 5, 2014

Vermont moves toward school consolidation

I write frequently on this blog about the law and politics of school consolidation (the post here links to prior posts on the topic), and that is a topic taken up in today's New York Times in relation to Vermont, which is currently considering a spate of consolidation across the state.  As Jess Bidgood explains, Vermont's situation is somewhat unique because the school districts are already quite small.
Tucked into valleys and isolated by mountains and rural expanse, many of Vermont’s 273 school districts serve just a smattering of children. It is an old system, borne of the state’s agrarian history and knotty geography, and many Vermonters like it that way.
* * * 
Vermont has more school districts than cities and towns, and a valued tradition of small-scale democracy.
Shap Smith (D), speaker of the Vermont House expresses that tradition thusly:  
In a state as small as Vermont, the schools are the heart of most communities and the notion of local control is close to a religion here.  
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 72.3 percent of Vermont residents live in places with a population of 2,500 or fewer.  No population cluster in the state is larger than 50,000, which means 100% of the state is rural if you use that population threshold as the cutoff.   

The push for consolidation is driven by the loss of 20,000 students over the past two decades, a phenomenon that has necessarily driven up costs associated with small schools--and therefore taxes.  The last big overhaul in the state's school governance was more than a century ago.  

Bidgood quotes Governor Pete Shumlin (D):  
If you designed a system from scratch, you would not design what Vermont has right now.  We currently have more superintendents and administration than any state of our size. We need to think of a better way.
Reflecting the effort to find that better way, the state legislature last week passed a measure that would give districts a few years to find ways to consolidate with one another--to voluntarily choose their consolidation partners.

Many lawmakers voting on the bill were in a particularly difficult situation because consolidation is at stake in their own districts.  The law will require consolidation into districts with a minimum of 1000 students each by 2020.   (I note that this is very similar to the consolidation Arkansas undertook a decade ago, but there the minimum district size is 350).

To illustrate the challenge, Bidgood features Rochester, population 1,139, in the center of the state, with a district of just 150 pupils, K-12.  Some students come to Rochester from even smaller towns, and the district represents a familiar challenge in the school consolidation debate:  you can (or should) only bus students so far.  As a member of the Rochester school board expressed it, referring to physical geography,
This valley really needs a K-12 school.  
The option, as Bidgood expresses it, is to bus the children "to schools on the other side of the nearest mountain."  And that physical geography is what could keep schools like Rochester open, even as their administration changes.  As the school's principal stated:
Because it’s so isolated, I think people will really fight for it.
And that fight for rural schools inevitably leads to rural-urban comparisons, as reflected this quote from Paul Keane, a Hartford school board member and former teacher:
I know how decent and how joyful a school run by local residents is compared to the anonymous monstrosities that the rest of the country has.

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