On April 10, 2024

An opportunity for our children, schools and communities

By John Freitag

Editor’s note: John Freitag retired in 2017 from a 34-year career as facilities director at the Newton Elementary School in Strafford. He has long been involved in community and school issues both locally and on a state level. He recently finished his fourth term on the Strafford Select Board as chair and liaison to the Strafford School District. 

Act 46 was passed in 2015 due to increasing economic pressures and was designed to encourage and later mandate consolidation of neighboring Vermont school districts in order to “maximize efficiencies” and promote equity, in light of declining enrollment and challenging demands placed on Vermont schools.

Unfortunately, it has not worked, and nine years later we find ourselves in an even more dire situation with ever-increasing costs, continued decline in enrollment and nearly a third of school budgets being rejected. Yet, currently in Montpelier, the prevailing tendency is to double down on further similar consolidation, ignoring the structural changes that could actually play to the strengths inherent in our Vermont communities and provide better outcomes.

The importance of having Vermonters be connected to their schools can be seen in recent school budget votes: Of the 97 school budgets voted on, 66 passed and 31 failed. A 68% pass to 32% failed ratio. If we break out non-unified districts, those retaining their own school boards, from this group, 54 passed and 11 failed — an 83% pass, 17% ratio. If we then look at the consolidated or unified school districts under Act 46, we find 12 passed and 20 failed, a 37.5% pass, 62.5% fail ratio.

The bottom line is that Vermonters care about their children and communities. What we need to do is refocus our resources and trust school boards and principals with the responsibility to do what is best in their own communities. How could a shift like this be made? Here are the three major changes that could have the most immediate impact:

 Reduce the top-down bureaucracy. Vermont has 39 separate supervisory unions that serve our approximately 72,000 students. This level of bureaucratic oversight is expensive and unneeded. Reducing the number of supervisory unions to match the 17 technical centers in the state would be a sensible step to take. A model for how this could work is the North Country Supervisory Union which has one tech center and 12 education centers. One supervisory union covering 520 square miles, 65 miles end to end. It works because they hire strong principals who have a good deal of authority in managing their schools.

Reduce bureaucratic redundancy. Whenever feasible, have uniform school policies throughout the state. Many policies governing school districts, such as tobacco usage, firearms on school grounds, etc., can be adopted on a statewide basis, and there is no need for the cumbersome and time-consuming process of adopting these on an individual basis.

 Statewide contracts for school personnel. An enormous amount of time, money and resources of administrators, teachers and school board members goes into contract negotiations. Statewide negotiated teacher, support staff, principal and superintendent contracts would ensure appropriate compensation for all Vermont school employees. Recently, teachers’ health benefits have started to be negotiated on a statewide level. Any practical obstacles could fairly easily be addressed which would allow contracts, as they are for state employees, to be negotiated at a state level. This would allow superintendents, administrators, teachers and school board members to focus their attention not on the often long and contentious labor negotiations, but on the education of our children.

These suggestions will of course require change and meet with strong opposition from special interests. Yet, our most important special interest is our children. We can, by consolidating bureaucratic functions and refocusing the resources, give back responsibility to our school boards, parents and community members who care so much and are willing to do the day-to-day hard work of educating our children in difficult times.

Rather than pit stretched taxpayers against the needs of educating our children, this would be a way to meet the challenges of today that is not only economically practical but also strengthens our communities. We need to buck the trend of ever larger, ever more top-down bureaucracies, unfathomable school budgets and continued increases in taxes. These are some first steps towards keeping Vermont, that special “Brave Little State” we all cherish.

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