District downsizing

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(HOST) Education Commissioner Richard Cate has proposed downsizing the number of Vermont school districts. Commentator Allen Gilbert, who is a school board member, thinks that there are a lot of unanswered questions about the plan.

(GILBERT) State education Commissioner Richard Cate has presented a plan for trimming the number of school districts. He says he wants to have a public “conversation” about the idea. My guess is that he’ll get an earful.

Cate’s idea is not new. In fact, it’s been floated at least five times in the last forty years. Those efforts failed, and that suggests that there are strong reasons against district downsizing.

Some of the reasons are political. They are based on “local control.” Another reason is pride. Townspeople are proud of their local school and don’t want it closed – even as enrollments drop.

What’s curiously lacking in Cate’s plan is a purpose. You almost get the sense that the commissioner isn’t for or against downsizing – only that he feels people expect him to bring it up.

There is little in the plan that speaks to how children’s education might be improved. There are few details about possible savings – or about additional expenses, such as busing, which can occur when local schools close. There are complaints that we have many more districts and many more school board members than other states. There is an inference that all these school board members create extra work for administrators.

What’s not in the plan is acknowledgment that maybe it’s a good thing that 1,300 Vermonters serve on local school boards, and that maybe they do this because they want to make schools work better for kids. Most states would love to have this level of citizen participation in public affairs.

I think that the commissioner’s conversation should start with an examination of the assumptions behind his ideas. Is bigger always better? If the problem is too many board members, aren’t town governments in the same boat? Vermont has two hundred and fifty or so select boards and city councils. Should we consider consolidating towns? And our Legislature – if we followed national per capita averages, it would have about thirty members instead of one hundred eighty.

More questions. The time demands on superintendents – are the demands really coming from local school board members, or are they coming from state and federal officials? The mandates imposed by the state and federal governments are vast – from prescribed student testing to the development of complex policies. If a superintendent complains about the time spent with boards dealing with test scores or developing state-mandated policies – well, is that really the fault of the local board – or of Montpelier or Washington?

I also think there will be a big elephant in any room when the commissioner discusses district downsizing. The absent issue will be the question of community – how important is community to us? And how is community created, or lost?

Our schools are one of the last things that we do together as communities. Take away a town’s school or its school board, and I’m afraid you’ve hit a sensitive nerve – if not a vital nerve center.

Maybe Commissioner Cate’s ideas could be tried as an experiment in one supervisory union. Then we’d have facts as well as perceptions in this important conversation.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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