By Rob Roper
Last November, Vermonters sent a loud and clear message to Montpelier to fix Vermont’s education financing system and lower our property tax burden. A proposal now coming out of the Legislature is based on mandatory consolidation of school districts into units of no fewer than 1,100 students, which will affect all but 12 of Vermont’s 273 school districts. Other measures include ending small school grants, getting rid of the “phantom student” formula that mitigates the financial impact of losing student population, and a nuanced cap on spending increases of around 2 percent.
One Representative described this “solution” (which is not likely to save any money) in a post to constituents: “Lawmakers don’t want ‘blood on their hands’ so instead of making tough decisions they create circumstances—like fiscal pressures on school districts—so voters will close their own schools.” This is called “fiscal asphyxiation.”
But communities do have an option to keep their local schools as well as local control over them: go independent.
In 2013 the town of North Bennington, fearing that some sort of Montpelier-driven, forced school consolidation movement was in the wind, did just this. Rather than stand by and be asphyxiated, they voted to close their local public elementary school—a move that added North Bennington to Vermont’s 90-plus “non-operating” districts that provide school choice, with tuition following the child to any public or approved, non-religious, independent school anywhere. They then rented the building back to a new, independent school, the Village School of North Bennington (VSNB), which is run by the same principal and staffed by the same teachers as the old school.
The results have been tremendously successful for taxpayers, the community and the kids.
Tom Martin, Head of School for VSNB, recently penned a letter to education officials and Legislators outlining some of the efficiencies the new, independent governance structure has allowed them to achieve in a very short time.
VSNB cut the overall operating budget from $2.1 million to $1.8 million—nearly half a million dollars in savings if you take into account the projected growth in the budget to roughly $2.3 million if the school had remained public. The tuition for the school has remained flat at $12,938, over $4,000 less than the $17,000-plus average for a comparable public school. And, as the letter explains, “This expenditure will provide a comprehensive program for all children in our school Pre-K through grade 6 including children with special needs.”
Opportunities and outcomes have improved as well. In a post on VSNB’s website titled, “The Value of Independence,” Martin wrote:
“Independence enables our exceptional educators to make real decisions in their classrooms where the outcomes truly matter. They are empowered to do what they believe is best for our children and community, and in this freedom provide exemplary service. In the mission-driven independent governance structure, strategic planning has replaced management. This process has empowered VSNB to institute a foreign language program with our area college, establish a 1:1 computer initiative, expand our string program, broaden our community partnerships, seek NEASC accreditation, welcome Pre-K children this fall, and provide our community with wrap-around services for our children.”
Going independent has been a win-win for North Bennington. It has also been a successful solution for the only the other Vermont community to embark on this course so far, the Mountain School at Winhall, which went independent in 1998, though for different reasons.
This is an option every school that is threatened with either closure or the probability of being twisted out of recognition by Montpelier’s “reforms” should consider. It will not necessarily help a community escape the financial realities all Vermont schools are facing today—no more revenue and declining student populations (though some schools could use independence as a means to attract more students and privately fund-raise). But it does offer schools the kind of flexibility necessary to remain viable under these more challenging conditions.
Going independent won’t work for everybody. Conditions have to be right, and the leadership has to be up to the task. With the loss of over 25,000 K-12 students in the last 20 years it makes sense for some schools to close or consolidate. But, at least “going independent” gives options and opportunities to communities that don’t want to let their local schools go without a fight. If they succeed, everybody will benefit.
Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org). He lives in Stowe.