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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

School Consolidation Bill Faces Key Test In Statehouse

This should be a key week for legislation that aims to make dramatic changes in how Vermont’s public schools are governed.

The old structure which includes hundreds of school districts statewide, has been in place for more than a century. But that could change under a school district consolidation plan being developed by the House Education Committee.

Backers of the proposal say it’s needed for several reasons. First, they note that the current system of governance has been in place for more than 100 years and doesn’t reflect the educational needs of the 21st century.

"I think larger districts can just basically offer more opportunities for kids." House Education chairwoman Joey Donovan

They’re also concerned about the state’s declining student enrollment. The number of students has fallen approximately 20 percent over the past 15 years.

Supporters say the decline means that there are a number of school districts that don’t have enough students to offer a broad range of educational opportunities.

Vermont has 282 school districts and roughly 80 percent of them have fewer than 500 students and about a third of the districts have fewer than 100 students.

Rep. Joey Donovan, D-Burlington, is the chairwoman of the House Education Committee. She says the bill encourages school districts to consolidate over the next four years. If they don’t, a special panel will step in and create a new larger district.

“I don’t think small school districts can continue to offer some of the things that we want all Vermont children to have: art, music other learning opportunities,” said Donovan. “I think larger districts can be more flexible with their staff and can just basically offer more opportunities for kids.”

Donovan says that the primary goal of the bill is to improve the quality of education and that it’s not an effort to save money.

“I absolutely want to be very emphatic about that,” said Donovan. “I do not see one penny of savings in what we are doing but I do see increased opportunities for children.”

And Donovan thinks the threat of mandatory consolidation in 2019 will encourage some school districts to take action now.

“I think by having that knowing that could happen, it’s going to encourage a lot of conversation and a lot of mergers that I think could be beneficial for districts,” said Donovan.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He’s not convinced that this approach is a good idea:

“Whether it’s for saving money or it’s for quality I am skeptical. I would need to be convinced,” said McCormack. “For one thing I love small schools. I think the kind of attention that kids get from the faculty who really know them is something worth protecting.” 

McCormack thinks that new Internet-based long distance learning programs might be one way to improve educational opportunities in some small schools.

“That make it possible for the kid in the small school who wants to study Russian or who is the only kid really capable of advanced calculus to get what they need,” said McCormack.

The House Education Committee will hold a public hearing on their school district consolidation Tuesday night at the Statehouse.