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April 23, 2015

Senate panel unanimously adopts education reform bill

Senate panel unanimously adopts education reform bill

By Amy Ash Nixon, VTDigger.org

The Senate Education Committee unanimously passed H.361, the education reform bill, after taking testimony Wednesday evening, April 22, from dozens of Vermont parents, teachers, school board members, administrators and citizens.

The Senate version of H.361 contains generous incentives to spur more school district mergers. The goal of the legislation is to create larger, more efficient integrated education systems that provide more opportunity for students and help control rising education spending.

In a short introductory speech, 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 mantra from the hearing: that one size does not fit all.

A number of educators supported the Legislature’s attempt to restructure the state’s school delivery system because they said it will create more educational opportunities for students. Proponents said schools could find efficiencies in larger integrated education systems that share staff and resources.

Opponents, parents, educators, and residents from small towns, testified that the legislative changes could be disruptive to their communities.

TESTIMONY MIXED

Jay Nichols, school superintendent of Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union, said the current governance structure is “archaic.”

“The future success of our state depends on educating all of our students the best we can,” testified Nichols. He said the formation of larger school systems will lead to more opportunities for students and save taxpayers money. “Remember all Vermont children are our future, not just the ones that live in the same town as us.”

Steve Owens, a teacher and a school union representative for the Vermont-NEA, said that the “policy should do no harm, and it should be something that bulldozes problems.”

“No gimmick that’s been able to come out of this building has been able to make people do things they don’t want to do,” warned Owens.

Susan Edgerton a member of the Readsboro School Board and a professor of education, said, “We feel that this bill could eliminate our school, harm our children and destroy our community.”

David Giddings testified that within months of his family’s move to Readsboro, their house burned down. A school fundraiser helped his family put their lives back together. People in town rallied and helped them rebuild. They donated supplies, food and offered them temporary shelter.

“This is what small towns in Vermont are all about,” Giddings said. Removing the incentives for small schools will turn the town “into a ghost town and just another piece of what Vermont used to be,” he said.

Andrew Pond, chair of the Bolton School Board and vice chair of the newly formed Mount Mansfield Modified Union School District, testified to the lack of opportunities students in some small schools are facing.

Pond talked about how the new district, which starts in the fall, will expand coursework and share resources. “We can better educate our students together than apart,” Pond said. “One size may not fit all, but too small is too small.”

Gail B. Conley, a retired school superintendent from the town of Huntington, said there is no credible data that shows larger districts will improve opportunities for students. “These efforts are political efforts to respond to needed tax relief,” Conley said.

In total, 48 people testified: 25 supported the legislation and 23 opposed it, according to a scoresheet kept by Rep. Bernie Juskiewicz, R-Cambridge, vice chair of the House Education Committee.

Many who testified made references to problems with Vermont Health Connect and cautioned the Legislature to proceed carefully with changes to the public education structure.

Before the committee voted, Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, quipped: “I do think we should have a piece in the bill that says it is not the intent of the Legislature to create another Vermont Health Connect.”

DETAILS OF H.361

Districts that meet state quality standards or are geographically isolated, will not be required to join larger integrated education systems, Cummings sad.

The state ultimately would have the authority to recommend mergers in districts the state determines do not meet educational quality review standards and have not taken steps to restructure.

A process for districts who do not move into larger systems is laid out in the bill, and includes self-evaluations, and other options.

The state Agency of Education and State Board of Education would propose a plan to the Legislature for districts that haven’t restructured in December 2018. Lawmakers would have the biennium to address proposed changes.

While the bill contains a target student body number of 900, that is not a hard and fast figure, Cumming said, and the Legislature understands in some parts of Vermont, it will not be possible to cobble that number of students into a district, given the state’s geographic challenges.

The bill phases out subsidies including the Small Schools Grant program and the hold harmless provision, which has artificially inflated the number of students in districts losing population, to help protect tax rates in those communities from spiking.

Photo by Amy Ash Nixon/VTDigger

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, is chair of the Senate Education Committee.

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