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

Senate Committee Moves Towards Financial Incentives For School District Mergers

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Angela Evancie
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VPR/file
Senate Education committee chairwoman Ann Cummings, shown here in January, says she wants every school to examine its curriculum and its budget.

The Senate Education committee is backing a school restructuring bill that's designed to expand educational opportunities for students throughout the state. And supporters of the plan are hopeful that the legislation would also reduce property taxes.

Under the Senate approach, the state would offer financial incentives to encourage smaller school districts to merge with neighboring districts. Each district would have at least 900 students.

Washington Sen. Ann Cummings, the chairwoman of the Senate Education committee, says she’s concerned that Vermont's student enrollment has dropped by more than 20 percent in the last 15 years while the cost of education has gone up. She wants every school to examine its curriculum and its budget.

"This is really to have our whole educational system kind of do a self reflection,” Cummings says, “and work very seriously with, ‘How can we do this better?’”

Cummings says school districts, regardless of their size, that already provide a quality education at a reasonable cost will not be affected by the bill. But school districts that don't meet these criteria will need to merge.

"I think that the property tax issue and the educational opportunity issue is big enough now, so that we need to say, 'No you've got to make a decision,' that doing nothing is not an option." - Senate Education Committee chairwoman Ann Cummings

Districts will be given five years to meet the financial and educational standards. If they fail to act, Cummings says the state will move in and order them to join a larger district. 

"I think that the property tax issue and the educational opportunity issue is big enough now, so that we need to say, ‘No you've got to make a decision,’ that doing nothing is not an option,” Cummings says.

The senator is convinced that the legislation will help reduce property tax burdens.

"It's bending the curve,” she says. “So this year we're trying to get a handle on why costs are going up while students are going down, and the hope is to get that curve going down."

Gov. Peter Shumlin supports the Senate bill. He says it's critical for the Agency of Education to work together with local school districts to help them understand the challenges they face in the future.

“So that they can make smart choices that reduce costs, reduce spending over what they otherwise would have spent, and improve quality,” Shumin says. “I think this is the biggest progress we've made on education in many, many years and a challenge that Vermonters have asked us – begged us – to address.”

Backers of the bill are hoping to have it on the Senate floor for debate sometime next week.

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