Act 153 was passed last year to provide incentives for local schools to consider voluntarily merging into larger districts. I recommend that every school district in the state examine Act 153 to see if their students and communities could benefit from such a consolidation. I see the potential both for greater efficiency in how we operate our schools, and for improvement to an already strong educational system for our students.
This recommendation is based on over 30 years of experience working in Vermont schools, rural and suburban, in different parts of the state, as well as the traveling school visits I have made since becoming Commissioner. We have one of the more expensive educational systems to operate not because we have overpaid teachers or staff, but because our complex system of delivery creates duplication of services.
Our student enrollment statewide is at one of its lowest points in decades. Our current enrollment of approximately 89,000 students is down from a high in 1997 of over 106,000 students. When we examine the current student population and our state birth rates, this decline is projected to continue for several more years.
During this period of decline in our student population over the past 15 years, school staff has increased by about 20 percent. Our student-to-staff ratio is about 4.7 students to every adult. We have many supervisory unions with full-time superintendents and central offices for districts with fewer than 1,000 students. We have 277 district school boards, many of whom operate schools with fewer than 100 students. I am not questioning the sincerity and commitment of school board members around the state, but we need to maximize our investments and share resources in order to meet the needs of students.
Since the passage of Acts 60 and 68, we have moved from a system of funding our schools mostly based on local taxes to one based on state taxes. Currently, statewide school tax dollars are sent to the state Education Fund, and districts are then paid for the bulk of their local school expenses. This means that local decisions made by one community have consequences for all of us. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest reasons we need to look at a different way of operating our schools.
Vermont has a long-standing tradition of local citizens serving on school boards, which I fully support. However, I believe we need to review our concept of “local.” I believe in a systems change wherein most of our current districts merge into larger supervisory districts. Elected officials from those communities will still be charged with setting the policy and vision for the larger district, but they would have greater resources and more options in terms of human capital and physical space in which to serve students. For example, Washington Central Supervisory Union (WCSU), which comprises the towns of Calais, East Montpelier, Worchester, Berlin and Middlesex, could transition from a five-district system to a single district with board representation from each community. Better yet, Montpelier could be included as well, which is geographically surrounded by WCSU.
Please remember that, from a national perspective, these will still be small districts. If mergers occurred statewide along the guidelines I have suggested, no district would be larger than our largest existing district (Burlington). We would go from having 277 districts to somewhere around 40. The number of supervisory offices would be reduced by approximately one-third. My Department has calculated that the immediate and ongoing savings in educational expenses would be approximately $20 million a year. By reducing the duplication of services and harnessing joint purchasing power, we could save additional money every year.
We also need to look realistically at the number of schools we currently operate around the state. We have more than 50 schools with fewer than 60 students, and most of their populations continue to drop. These small schools contribute to Vermont’s distinction as having the smallest student-to-staff ratio in the country. If we increased our ratio by a fraction (from 4.7:1 to 4.9:1), taxpayers could save approximately $23 million annually.
Act 153 is not intended to close schools – it offers incentives for increasing district size and looking at different ways of delivery education. In fact, Act 153 actually offers protections for small schools by guaranteeing that they remain open for a set period (the default is four years) unless the town where the school is located agrees to closure. However, I believe we cannot take school consolidation off the table. We do need to look at it on a district-by-district basis and make sensible decisions based on local conditions.
If we can find efficiencies in education, we can improve the overall fiscal condition of the state without reducing the breadth of educational services that we provide children. We can improve the outcomes for our students and meet the changing fiscal realities in our state, not by watching our small schools and districts die a death by a thousand cuts, but by systemic, thoughtful sharing of resources.
Act 153 is a great start but the work has just begun. I would like to see a long-term, systemic, conscious, data-driven process to move us closer to a better, more efficient and potentially less costly system to organize our schools based on 21st century ideas, not those that were conceived in the 1800's.
Armando Vilaseca is Vermont’s Commissioner of Education.