Local News

Senate panel to approve education governance bill

The Great Divide

Enrollment, Staffing and Spending Trends, 2001-2014

Data: Vermont Agency of Education. Chart by Diane Zeigler / VTDigger.org

By Amy Ash Nixon, VTDigger.org

The Senate Education Committee was expected to vote out its version of H.361, the education restructuring bill, by the end of the day Tuesday and a public hearing on H.361 is planned for Wednesday evening, April 22.

The committee awaited input from Rebecca Holcombe, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education, who was set to testify Tuesday afternoon.

The Senate bill calls for the restructuring of public school districts, using multi-year tax incentives or grants to spur voluntary partnerships among the state’s 277 school districts.

Districts have five years to move to more sustainable governance structures. If by 2020 the state has determined a district or school is not meeting quality, opportunity or fiscal standards, the State Board of Education would have the authority to realign districts to meet state expectations.

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said progress on the education reform bill has been incremental.

“This is rolling a very large boulder up a hill, and every inch is good,” Cummings said.

Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, said the bill, he believes, “cuts the middle ground.” But added that the incentives may not be enough to drive districts to drop the existing supervisory union structure and form larger PreK-12 school integrated education systems, which the Senate version of the bill has set at a minimum of 900 pupils. The state currently has 62 supervisory unions, some of which have as few as 500 students.

The bill phases out most small schools grants and the hold-harmless formula that has buffered districts from the costs associated with declining enrollments. The so-called phantom student phenomenon credits districts for more students than are actually enrolled.

Districts that do not comply with state laws would be assessed a tax penalty of 5 percent. Agency of Education officials recently told lawmakers that state requirements for supervisory unions to manage special education and transportation programs have been ignored by some local districts.

The draft bill also calls on school districts to work with human service agencies to help families that are in crisis. The state has an increasing number of children with severe emotional difficulties, the draft bill notes, and, “the proportion of students from families in crisis due to loss of employment, opiate addiction, and other factors, has also increased during this time period, requiring the State’s public schools to fulfill an array of human services functions.”

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