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To cut costs and strengthen public schools, Vermont plans massive consolidation

May 31, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
In Vermont, voters will decide next week whether to okay the largest public school reorganization in 125 years. A new ballot measure would merge smaller schools and do away with perks that let parents use tax dollars to send their kids to private schools, even in Canada. Opposition is fierce, but advocates say it’ll cut costs and strengthen public schools. John Tulenko of Education Week reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Vermont is in the midst of the largest reorganization of public schools it has seen in the last 125 years. As many other rural states have already done, Vermont wants to consolidate its many small school districts. But it’s not happening without a fight.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Education Week has this report as part of our weekly education series, Making the Grade.

JOHN TULENKO: Vermont is a collection of small towns, many with just one or two schools, and where people feel they have a say in their children’s education.

SUZANNE HULL-PARENT, School Board Member: People have a very loud voice. You know, some people will say Montpelier controls everything, there’s really not a lot of voice left. Well, there is.

JOHN TULENKO: Like Suzanne Hull-Parent, Vermonters stay close with their schools through their locally elected school boards. There’s one for almost every town.

SUZANNE HULL-PARENT: I have been on the school board for 12 years. I think when you have local people living in the community, making the decisions about their school the best they can, it’s going to be more vested in the good of that community.

JOHN TULENKO: Something else about Vermont schools, they’re among the smallest in the country.

SUZANNE HULL-PARENT: You get more individual attention. I was blessed to have that and I’m blessed to have my children have that. And my daughter feels like she has a voice. And I’m not sure, in a bigger place, that she would feel she had a voice.

JOHN TULENKO: Small schools and local control are in the DNA here. But that’s changing as a result of a new state law called Act 46. It aims to consolidate Vermont’s school districts and reduce their numbers by half.

For now, communities can vote yes to unification and get tax breaks or say no and lose a portion of their school funding, and risk being assigned into a merger by the state.

WOMAN: And I don’t see how this is helpful for our children.

WOMAN: But what if the vote is no? What happens?

JAY NICHOLS, Superintendent, Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union: Change is hard. I think change is hard.

JOHN TULENKO: For school superintendent Jay Nichols, change could help many students. Nichols oversees five small school districts in Northern Vermont. Two of them are neighboring districts, Richford and Enosburg, and both have high schools.

JAY NICHOLS: Enosburg High School, by Vermont standards, a good-sized high school, comprehensive school, offers a lot of programming, you know, seven or eight A.P. classes, has a Junior ROTC program, which has saved kids. Parents will tell you, that has saved their kids and had them not drop out of school, because of Junior ROTC. Richford kids can’t go do that.

JOHN TULENKO: Richford High School, in the town next door, offers only two A.P. classes, not to mention no ROTC. The reason for this is size.

JAY NICHOLS: It’s a smaller school, and it’s all about economies of scale. And they offer as much as they can for the size that they are.

JOHN TULENKO: Richford has about 150 students. Enosburg has roughly double.

JAY NICHOLS: If we become one district, a kid could take some classes in Enosburg, some classes in Richford. If we share the staff, and share all the kids, we can offer more. That’s all.

JOHN TULENKO: But Act 46 was designed to accomplish another goal, tax relief. Two-thirds of the money Vermont spends on public schools comes from property taxes.

SHAP SMITH, Speaker of the House, Vermont: It’s a statewide property tax. And when people get their bill, it tends to be a big one.

JOHN TULENKO: House Speaker Shap Smith pushed Act 46 through the state legislature.

SHAP SMITH: One of the things that was driving change was the fact that we have declining enrollment, and yet we have increasing expenses. Our student-to-teacher ratio is one of the lowest in the country, and that is driving the education costs for the last 15 to 20 years.

JAY NICHOLS: We have too many adults for the number of kids we have. That’s why we have the most expensive education system in the United States.

JOHN TULENKO: Act 46 could lower costs by sharing staff and resources, but the fear is, some districts will go farther.

SUZANNE HULL-PARENT: You will see school closures.

JOHN TULENKO: To Vermonters like Suzanne Hull-Parent, that would be significant.

SUZANNE HULL-PARENT: You’re losing the heart of many communities. That’s where they meet. That’s where they have functions that aren’t even school-related. That’s where families in need get support services. I think it just is going to be devastating to communities. I think they’re going to change the landscape of Vermont with that.

JOHN TULENKO: Closing small schools means having to send students elsewhere, to larger schools that offer more courses, but may not be better.

STUDENT: Like, people who go to small schools, like they — when they graduate, they leave with something unique and special that other people don’t have.

STUDENT: I came from a huge school with a lot of resources, and I came in knowing that there wasn’t as many advanced programs. But connection is really important. You know, there’s a lot of support here.

JOHN TULENKO: Act 46 does prohibit school closings for at least four years, but there are other things Vermonters would have to give up right away.

JAY NICHOLS: School choice in Vermont. If you live in a town that is a tuition town, you can go to school any place you want, paid for by the taxpayers.

JOHN TULENKO: Tuition towns are those without schools, often middle schools and high schools. Merging could cost them school choice.

MAN: Today, we have the ability to send our kids to the best fit for them, and we’re going to give that up.

JOHN TULENKO: Many of these parents in Montgomery, Vermont, send their children to public and private high schools, including this private school in Canada, using school choice vouchers worth some $14,000 each. In all, it’s about a million dollars that’s projected to leave the district.

JAY NICHOLS: This is a huge portion of the budget that we can keep in our local schools and communities.

JOHN TULENKO: Could you offer more A.P. courses?

JAY NICHOLS: We certainly could.

JOHN TULENKO: You don’t think there’s a chance that that million dollars…

SUZANNE HULL-PARENT: Is just going to infuse in and get — no, I don’t think that’s going to happen. No, no.

JOHN TULENKO: All these debates will soon be put to the voters. On June 7, residents here will decide whether to move forward on plans to merge.

In Franklin County, Vermont, I’m John Tulenko of Education Week reporting for the “PBS NewsHour.”