School District Consolidation Plan Draws Opposition

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(Host) A lot of opposition has developed to requiring school districts to consolidate.

The proposal is part of the so called "Challenges for Change" budget plan.

As VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports, many groups say the initiative would hurt the quality of education in Vermont.

(Kinzel) The plan that’s been proposed by Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca is sweeping in its scope.   It would reduce Vermont’s 280 school districts to less than 50 and the new districts would be run by regional school boards.

Vilaseca says this approach will save the state as much as $20 million a year.

The proposal also increases the state’s student to staff ratio. The commissioner argues these reductions are needed, because in the past 10 years, the number of staff has increased while the number of students has decreased about 10 percent.

Governor Jim Douglas says the approach makes a lot sense.

(Douglas) "We have to find a way to gain an economy of scale in our public education system. There may be other ways, but we have to do something. We have about four and a half students per adult in our school systems all across the state – half of them teachers half of them other staff – and we just can’t sustain that."

(Kinzel) It’s been estimated that the staffing changes could result in the loss of 1,000 jobs. Douglas says it’s the only way to put education on a sustainable spending path.

(Douglas) "Most of the costs are in human resources, salaries and benefits. Because we have such a low student-teacher ratio and staff-to-student ratio we’re going to have to reduce our payroll in order to achieve these savings."

(Kinzel) Martha Allen is the head of Vermont NEA – the state’s teachers union. She says many schools face job losses because of budget cuts enacted on Town Meeting Day. She says any additional staff reductions will have a negative impact on school services.

(Allen) "I think once that was done, schools would find themselves with all kinds of problems as far as being able to meet the needs of the students. And I would be very concerned, if I was a parent of school aged kids right now, I’d be very concerned that my child or children wouldn’t be getting the appropriate services without the staffing."

(Kinzel) John Nelson is the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. He says Vermont students generally test well on a variety of national assessments and he thinks smaller school districts play an important role.

(Nelson) "We have a system of accountability here that I think is largely responsible for the results that we get. So one argument against sort of forced, top-down consolidation and creation of these larger districts that are farther away from their communities is that I believe it would have a detrimental impact on outcomes."

(Kinzel) Lawmakers and the Douglas administration will hold a public hearing on the entire Challenges for Change plan on Tuesday afternoon at the Statehouse.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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