Secretary Opinion Pieces

   
VOLUNTARY MERGERS A MOVE IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
   

This spring saw a number of positive developments in the area of school district governance. The changes illustrate how the system established in Act 153 by the Legislature to encourage districts to study the possible benefits of collaborative activities is intended to work.

The first Regional Education District (RED) was created when voters in the school districts of Landgrove, Londonderry, Peru and Weston each voted to merge their districts with the Flood Brook Union District to form the Mountain Towns RED. The RED received approval of its request to the State Board of Education to move from the Windsor Southwest Supervisory Union to the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union. The departure of the Mountain Towns RED from Windsor Southwest increased the feasibility of the consolidation of the Windsor Southwest Supervisory Union with the Rutland-Windsor Supervisory Union to form a single new supervisory union.

Some have expressed concern that an element of coercion underlies the incentives for voluntary merger provided by the Legislature. A point that cannot be emphasized too strongly is that these changes in all cases were initiated by local units. The RED vote received overwhelming support in each of the four districts. The transfer of the RED from Windsor Southwest to Bennington-Rutland was proposed by the RED Study Committee and had the support of the superintendents and supervisory union boards in both supervisory unions. The initiative for the consolidation of Rutland-Windsor and Windsor Southwest originated with a study committee created by the supervisory unions themselves. The supervisory union boards, with the support of their superintendents, petitioned the State Board for permission to consolidate contingent on the successful creation of the RED and its move to Bennington-Rutland. Public support for the SU consolidation was demonstrated by advisory votes in two districts where the proposal received solid majorities.

Appropriately, the primary consideration in the proposals was the educational experience of students. Each of the districts that formed the RED educated students in grades K-8 at Flood Brook Elementary and offered student/parental choice for grades 9 – 12. A preponderance of students chose Burr & Burton Academy, an independent high school. This combination of education provided by the districts in lower grades and high school choice is found in the districts of Bennington-Rutland, even to the extent that Burr & Burton is the most commonly chosen high school. Other districts in Windsor Southwest are members of Green Mountain Union District. The shift will allow improved curriculum development in both supervisory unions.

Improved efficiency is secondary to the educational experience of students but can be a result of such changes. Given the pioneering nature of the activities, particularly the supervisory union consolidation, the Agency of Education contracted with a consultant with experience in accounting, school district financial reporting and best practices for supervisory unions. His analysis suggests that the total savings to the Mountain Towns RED, the consolidated supervisory union and the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union should exceed $700,000 per year.

Finally, I would like to correct a widespread misconception. There is a belief that any time a group of districts establishes a RED Study Committee and a RED proposal is voted down, or the committee recommends against forming a RED, that the result should be labeled a failure. The Legislature extended an invitation to districts to engage in discussions with one another. Success or failure should be measured by the quality of the discussions. In virtually every case, participating districts came away with useful information.

The House and Senate Education Committees spent weeks taking testimony on ideas that required enabling legislation. The result of their efforts, Act 156 of 2012, was signed into law by Governor Shumlin May 16. With the expanded set of opportunities, there is every reason to hope for continued improvements in students' educational experiences created through increasing collaboration of all sorts among Vermont's school districts and supervisory unions.

Armando Vilaseca is Vermont's Commissioner of Education.

Page Last Updated on February 25, 2014