By Amy Ash Nixon, VTDigger.org
The Senate Education Committee unanimously passed H.361, the education reform bill, after taking testimony Wednesday, April 22, from 48 people. Of those, 25 supported the legislation and 23 opposed it, according to Rep. Bernie Juskiewicz, vice chair of the House Education Committee.
The Senate version of H.361 contains generous incentives to spur school district mergers.
Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, chair of the Senate Education Committee, explained the Legislature is aware that small schools are working hard to provide children the best education possible. She emphasized that the bill does not aim to close Vermont’s small schools.
The bill lays out a multi-year approach to encourage the state’s 277 school districts to forge PreK-12 districts with 900 students. The plan includes a variety of incentives from tax breaks to grants, and offers flexibility for the new systems.
Lawmakers say the Senate version of H.361 takes into account the message gathered from the hearing, namely, that one size does not fit all.
While the bill contains a student count target of 900, that is not a hard and fast figure, Cumming said. In some parts of Vermont it will not be possible to put together that number of students in a single district, given the state’s geographic challenges.
The bill phases out subsidies including the Small Schools Grant program and the maximum loss or “phantom student” provision, which artificially inflates the number of students in smaller districts to help prevent tax rates in those communities from increasing as student enrollments decrease.