By Lee J. Kahrs, Brandon Reporter
As the Vermont Senate Education Committee continues its work on an education funding reform bill, small schools are once again under scrutiny as lawmakers consider the proposition that school and district consolidation equals cost savings.
Now, a new report names specific small schools in Addison and Rutland counties as examples of what’s wrong with Vermont’s school districting system.
But two of the superintendents that oversee those small schools say collaborative and consolidated programs and services are already implemented in their supervisory unions, and that those both keep costs down and enhance education opportunities for their students. One lawmaker holds up the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union (RNeSU) in the Brandon area as a model that other supervisory unions should work to emulate.
RNeSU Superintendent Jeanne Collins oversees such small schools as Whiting Elementary, Leicester Central and Sudbury Country School. Rutland Central Superintendent Debra Taylor is in charge of Proctor, West Rutland and Rutland Town schools.
Getting called out
Earlier this month, the Vermont Agency of Education released a study titled “When Is Small Too Small? Efficiency, Equity and the Organization of Vermont Public Schools,” known as the Baker Report, by Bruce D. Baker of Rutgers University and Wendy I. Geller of the Vermont Agency of Education.
The report opens by dismissing last year’s Penn State consolidation study on Vermont schools, which determined that there were no significant cost savings to consolidation here. In fact, Baker and Geller say that their research indicates that the opposite is true, predicated on ending the Small Schools Grants and spending-cap exemptions.
“The best empirical literature does suggest that consolidation of very small districts and schools as exist in Vermont can lead to long-run cost savings as well as improve equity in access to curricular and co-curricular opportunities,” the Baker Report states.
Currently, small school districts in Vermont operating at least one school are eligible for a small schools support grant if the two-year average enrollment is less than 100 or if the average grade size is 20 or fewer. Districts receiving a support grant are also eligible for a small schools financial stability grant if there is a 10 percent decrease in the two-year average enrollment in any one year.
In Addison and Rutland counties the Baker Report’s classification of “small schools” only applies to some elementary schools; none of the area high schools fall within that categorization.
Collins of RNeSU said that as much as small schools rely on the grants in their budgets, there is an unintended consequence. “These (incentives) almost prevent boards from working together,” she said. “I am not for eliminating them, but I am for loosening restrictions in creating and collaborating between schools.”
Less to lose
The Baker Report’s thrust is based on three primary factors: declining enrollment, per-pupil spending and geography.
It notes the fact that Sudbury, Whiting and Cornwall elementary schools are all located on Route 30 within 10 miles of each other, and that Orwell, Shoreham, Bridport and Addison elementary schools are all on the Route 22A corridor.
As far as spending goes, Rutland Central’s Taylor pointed out that over the last two years, the combined expenditure budgets in Rutland Central averaged a .01 percent decrease in FY 15 and a projected increase of 1.89 percent in FY16. This translates into an overall combined education spending decrease of .03 percent in FY15 and a projected increase of 2.09 percent in FY16. Taking this analysis a step further, combined education spending per pupil in FY15 decreased by .062 percent and will increase by 1.86 percent in FY16.
Finesse vs. the broad-brush approach
And while the Baker Report authors note that spending at some small schools is fairly low given enrollment, the programs could be inferior.
“Indeed, there are some very small schools that appear to be operating at relatively low expense, including Orwell and Whiting Village,” the authors wrote. “But these schools are unlikely to be able to offer rich programs at such small scale and low spending.”
RNeSU Superintendent Jeanne Collins disputes the notion that small schools by their nature offer less than larger schools. With three of the small schools named in the Baker Report—Sudbury, Whiting and Leicester—under her purview, Collins said Governor Shumlin and the Legislature need to work harder to fine-tune a customized approach to school consolidation.
“Just closing and consolidating small schools around Vermont is not the right thing to do,” Collins said. “It’s a one-size-fits-all approach and it’s not good for kids. We need options, from small to large.”
Collins’ career has run the gamut from overseeing small schools to large schools. Prior to taking the helm of RNeSU last June, Collins was the superintendent of the Burlington School District, home to some of the state’s largest schools. Still, she said there is a place for small schools in Vermont.
“For me, it’s about what’s best for kids and how could they best learn,” she said. “Small schools can offer enrichment in areas where large schools may not be able to accommodate some students.”
To that end, Collins notes the increased sense of community often present in a small school and the increased social skills often learned in multi-age classrooms in smaller schools like Sudbury and Whiting. Pittsford is also investigating a move to multi-age classrooms in the next two years as enrollment falls.
The Baker Report also claimed that small high schools can’t and don’t offer the same variety of advanced placement classes and co-curricular activities that larger schools can, due to limited budgets and resources.
“Certainly there is more to school size than efficiently producing test score gains—including access to programs, services, and curricular options,” the authors wrote. “A multitude of studies find that curricular options—in particular advanced course offerings and electives—are severely curtailed in very small high schools.”
Local educators disputed that assertion. Taylor and Otter Valley Union High School (OVUHS) Principal Jim Avery each shared a long list of advanced-placement and other classes available to students thanks to several partnerships the supervisory unions have with Stafford Technical Center, Vermont Virtual Learning Courses, Early College Dual Enrollment (at both high schools through agreements with local colleges) and internships.
OVUHS, which technically doesn’t fall under the Baker Report’s definition of a small school, also offers robust and award-winning theater arts and music programming that has attracted tuition students from other schools like Mill River and Fair Haven union high schools.
There is also the acclaimed Moosalamoo experiential ecology and wilderness education program. Avery said that starting next year, OVUHS will offer Moosalamoo as a dual enrollment class with Castleton State College.
And after working with the Chinese Ministry of Education, Avery said OVUHS will be offering a Chinese Mandarin language course and an East Asian Studies course next year as well. Sports Medicine will also be offered next year.
The Vermont way
There is also a sense among many in the education community that Legislators should not be so quick to urge mass small school consolidation in Vermont, and instead allow each small school and its supervisory union to determine what works cost-wise and programming-wise, and what doesn’t, without penalty. That is one tenet of the initial House education bill that many educators like, and one they hope remains intact as the bill moves through the Senate Education Committee.
After all, Taylor said, that’s the Vermont way. She added that none of the superintendents of these small schools was contacted for the Baker Report.
“One thing missing from this report is the local perspective,” she said. “The flavor of our local governance and the way the state of Vermont guarantees public education. Towns were identified as the focal point for governance. That rich history has really driven our governance structure and our ideals about local control.”
And with the governor’s argument focused more toward finding efficiencies in an effort to cut overall education costs, Collins said that is a separate issue.
“I see the education funding issue in some ways as different from the providing of education issue,” she said. “We choose how to fund education. The state chose to fund education through property taxes and the education fund. That is a choice elected officials make on an annual basis.”
Collins also said that there are many seemingly unrelated factors that affect the funding of education in Vermont, especially now that schools are taking on more social work issues than ever before.
“Schools remain the great democracy because we take everyone,” she said. “Behavioral needs, physical handicaps, mental health issues, poverty needs—and our goal is to help every child become a contributing member of society. It’s a pretty broad goal beyond reading, writing and math.”
Both Rutland Central and Rutland Northeast have worked to consolidate within their areas in order to find more efficient ways of operating, something Collins said other districts could benefit from modeling. In both districts, transportation, food service, teacher contracts, business, curriculum, information technology and special education services are all coordinated out of the central office.
Collins said offering school choice within Rutland Northeast would be the “next logical step” but that right now, state laws make it difficult to implement that option.
“Student numbers and needs would change, and the SU would adjust, staff-wise,” Collins said. “I’m hoping with this pending education bill that they discuss how a supervisory union can talk about what makes sense for them. We should be able to honor creativity and community and still allow greater flexibility for students and staff.”
Change is good
Overall, both superintendents said the Baker Report is a piece in an important conversation the state is having as education funding reform moves through the Legislature, but that blanket small school consolidation is too blunt a proposal for such a complex issue.
For Collins, the best recourse now is to continue the conversation on a community level.
“It can’t be about geography, and it can’t be about ‘small schools are bad’,” Collins said. “The education bill is forcing the conversation. I think the education funding system is broken and that the education fund is a shell game. Evolution can be good. Change can be good, particularly when it is locally driven change.”
Lee J.Kahrs is the editor at The Brandon Reporter, a sister paper of The Mountain Times.