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

House Speaker Smith Optimistic About School Consolidation Bill

House Speaker Shap Smith says he’s optimistic that lawmakers will approve a school consolidation bill this year. Smith says the proposal needs to include both financial incentives to encourage districts to merge and consequences for those districts that don’t.

One of the biggest questions facing the House and Senate next week on the school consolidation bill is whether the plan should include a mandatory provision to require smaller school districts to merge against their will.

"I think there has to be both a carrot and stick here and that is why we took the approach that we did in the House." House Speaker Shap Smith

The House has passed a bill that calls for a six year consolidation process. In the first four years, districts that agree to merge will be offered new financial incentives.

But if some districts haven’t voluntarily merged by 2018, a special committee will step in and create new larger districts over a two year period.

In contrast, the Senate Education committee has approved a bill that offers larger financial incentives and keeps the process entirely voluntary.

House Speaker Shap Smith says the House bill tries to deal with several major challenges facing many of Vermont’s schools.

“We are facing a challenge of declining enrollment, we know even without this plan that was passed by the House we’re probably going to see the continued closing of small schools given the declining enrollment and the pressures that people are feeling on the property tax,” said Smith. “And we’re also seeing increasing disparity among communities with regard to education opportunities for kids.”

Smith says that for the past four years, there’s been a law in place that offers incentives to smaller districts to consolidate.  But very few districts have taken advantage of this opportunity.

That’s why Smith thinks any new consolidation plan needs to include some consequences for towns that don’t want to merge in the next  six years:

“I think there has to be both a carrot and stick here and that’s why we took the approach that we did in the House,” said Smith. “So I thought that the House bill actually combined both the voluntary aspect and also had a mandatory aspect of it if the voluntary aspect didn’t work.”

Smith says the passage of Act 60 and Act 68 ensured financial equality in all school districts. He says this bill is designed to give all students the same “educational opportunities”.

“I think this is the flip side,” said Smith. “This actually tries to ensure that there will be equality of opportunity within the school districts within a broader framework rather than having one town in one place having a full suite of educational opportunities and the town right next to it not having that same suite of opportunities.”

Legislative leaders say the bill can only make it all the way through the legislative process if members of the House and Senate are willing to suspend rules to bring it up for debate. It’s not clear if this will happen.