Perhaps you have heard some of the conversations that have been gaining momentum across Vermont with regard to school consolidation. Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca, who was also a former Colchester School District superintendent, has long championed the cause as a means of reigning in the cost of education in the state while improving its quality. Critics of school consolidation challenge these notions while pointing to a host of problems with the concept. Because this is a complex issue facing education today, let’s spend a bit of time discussing it.
Since 1869, Vermont has safeguarded what is known as the school choice option. There are many towns in the state—referred to as tuition towns—without their own schools, and as such, students residing in those towns may attend a school of their choice under the existing law. There are other towns in the state that offer school choice even if they have a school of their own—Colchester being among them.
Commissioner Vilaseca and supporters of his initiative to consolidate schools across the state point to a number of anticipated advantages in the plan. The primary motivator is to reduce costs associated with public education in Vermont. Vilaseca, who appointed Dr. Vaughn Altemus as the Act 153 advisor earlier this year, hopes to save the state money while trimming down duplication of efforts in administrative, non-educational areas. Specifically, Vilaseca believes that school consolidation would trim costs in a variety of areas, such as facilities maintenance, school administration, general administration, and central support services (including business managers, administrative professionals, and the like).
Additionally, advocates point to the possibility of using the funds saved by consolidation to offer an enhanced, more diverse curriculum to Vermont’s students, as well as allocating the saved funds for upgrading facilities. Proponents also suggest the potential for added revenues from the sales of existing school lands and facilities.
But opponents argue a host of counterpoints. They point to numerous studies indicating that smaller schools deliver better education and have lower incidence of violence and vandalism, as well as studies claiming that academic performance of students in smaller schools is superior to those of larger schools. They also raise the issue of reduced student-to-staff ratios and longer commutes for many students. They voice concern over communities’ risk for loss of local control and the adverse effects on the local economies as the result of teacher and staff job losses.
In the current environment, it seems that the majority of Vermonters favor the long-standing school choice option and are disinclined to pursue school consolidation; the ability of towns to influence their own boards and educational programs and to maintain a sense of local control over their schools will not be easily relinquished. Additionally, there is currently little evidence to support the idea that merging school districts would actually result in significant cost savings to the state. Critics of school consolidation point out that teachers typically bargain up toward the higher-paying schools’ salaries, and such expenses as building renovations and higher transportation costs for students often negate any savings incurred through the closing of local schools.
Nevertheless, school districts across the state were required to vote and inform the Vermont Department of Education of their positions on school consolidation, and there are a number of school districts and supervisory unions across Vermont that are open to discussing it—and because Colchester School District is already considered a large district and would look to have other smaller districts merge with it, it is among those willing to consider it. CSD’s school board authorized Superintendent Larry Waters to engage Winooski, Grand Isle, and Isle La Motte in dialogue about a possible school merger and high school designation, but so far, there has been little interest from those communities. Any school consolidation effort would require approval from community voters—and it is an all-or-nothing proposition; if one district in a proposed merger disapproves the measure, the merger cannot happen. In the current climate, it is considered unlikely that Colchester will merge with any of the larger districts in the near future.
For more information about Vermont’s school consolidation initiative, visit www.vermontact153.org/ and education.vermont.gov/new/pdfdoc/laws/legislative_reports/10/EDU-District_Mergers_Virtual_Mergers_SU_Duties_and_Tuition_Vouchers_Study.pdf.
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