The New York Times
ROCHESTER, Vt. — Tucked into valleys and isolated by mountains and rural expanse, many of Vermont’s 273 school districts serve just a smattering of children. It is an old system, borne of the state’s agrarian history and knotty geography, and many Vermonters like it that way.
Among those who do are many residents here in Rochester, a town of close to 1,100 in the center of the state. Its district has one school for about 150 pupils in kindergarten through 12th grade, some of whom come from nearby towns with even smaller districts. But some in Vermont see little future in the tiny districts, and a move is on for consolidation. It will not be easy.
Vermont has more school districts than cities and towns, and a valued tradition of small-scale democracy. The last time there was a major overhaul in school governance was the late 1800s. But now there is an urgent fiscal reality: Vermont’s public schools have lost more than 20,000 students since the second half of the ’90s, making these districts even smaller, while education costs — and taxes to pay for them — have risen. “If you designed a system from scratch, you would not design what Vermont has right now,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat. “We currently have more superintendents and administration than any state of our size. We need to think of a better way.”
But while frustration increases — on Town Meeting day this year, 35 school budgets failed, which is about twice as many as usual — a House bill intended to streamline the education system by combining these tiny school districts has generated fierce opposition from parents, teachers and local administrators concerned it will erode that tradition of local control. And it comes with political difficulties, since many lawmakers voting for the bill would have to change the school board structures in their own towns.
“The fact of the matter is, in a state as small as Vermont, the schools are the heart of most communities and the notion of local control is close to a religion here,” said Shap Smith, the House Speaker, a Democrat who supports the bill.
The measure, which passed the House last Wednesday after more than a month of wrangling, would give districts a few years to find ways to combine voluntarily. A state team monitoring the process would design a final plan for any remaining districts, ultimately forming 44 to 55 K-12 districts, many with at least 1,000 students. The new structure would go into effect in 2020, after approval by voters in the voluntarily aligned districts and legislators. How much money the measure would save is unclear, but proponents say it would create efficiencies and increase student opportunities by sharing resources and collaborating on programming, as well as reduce administrative costs.
“We think this is going to bend the curve of education costs,” said State Representative Johannah Donovan, a Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee. Ms. Donovan also said the bill could help reduce staff and might help grow classes to more sustainable sizes.
But even as small districts shrink further, many communities still view the proposal as a galling rebuke that ignores geographic realities, like mountains and rivers that might make travel to and from districts difficult.
Rochester, like many Vermont towns, has felt the pressure of declining enrollment, having lost about 100 students over the last decade. A report by a consultant from the Vermont School Board Association that was completed last fall raised doubts about whether the district could continue to have a high school — which will see just 13 students graduate this year — if enrollment and costs continue on their divergent paths.
When the floodwaters of Hurricane Irene wrecked the auditorium, the town rebuilt it. And earlier this year, residents voted in a nonbinding referendum to keep the high school open. The principal, Catherine Knight, is leading an effort to shore up the school with specialized programming and by playing up the strengths of its small size. “We just see ourselves carry on a tradition,” said Ms. Knight. Referring to her students, she added, “They may not have 50 courses to choose from, but they know who they are and who cares about them.”
Under the House consolidation plan, Rochester School would likely become part of a larger district, and would no longer be run by its current board, although the town could be represented on that larger district’s new board. Residents here are concerned that their school would wither away in a bigger district, possibly leaving their students no option but to be bused to schools on the other side of the nearest mountain.
“Smaller schools like Rochester are going to be trampled on,” said Doug Gorton, a member of the school board here who works as a construction estimator. “This valley really needs a K-12 school.”
Around the state, concerns about eroding village schooling have fueled opposition to the proposal. “I know how decent and how joyful a school run by local residents is compared to the anonymous monstrosities that the rest of the country has,” said Paul Keane, a former teacher and Hartford school board member.
Proponents of the bill said that small schools were already closing, which was eroding local control anyway, and governance reform may be the only way to save them, by connecting them to resources from larger districts and heading off what some see as a looming budget crisis.
“Small schools can only survive if we change the governance structure,” said Dan French, the superintendent of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, the terminology Vermont uses to refer to a cluster of districts overseen by one superintendent.
State Senator Dick McCormack, a Democrat who leads the Education Committee, said last week that there was not enough time for his chamber to take up the House bill this session. “In Vermont, we delegate a lot of that to the towns,” he said. “If we were to reform something at this profound a level, we would really need serious consideration and the fact is that the clock has run out. Whatever was done this year will be a matrix for future work.”
Mr. McCormack said that the Senate would likely take up a bill early this week intended to create more savings in existing supervisory unions and encourage voluntary mergers.
Governor Shumlin said he is hopeful lawmakers will pass something this session.
As the debate continues, remote areas would likely continue to vex higher-level administrators interested in consolidation, distant as they are from bigger schools or administrative offices. That could be, in the end, what helps keep a school like Rochester’s from closing, regardless of administrative changes.
“Because it’s so isolated,” said Ms. Knight, the principal, “I think people will really fight for it.”