State Projects Savings If Most Small Schools Grants Ended

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(Host) A new report by the state Department of Education says Vermont could save more than five million dollars by eliminating "small school grants" to dozens of schools.

The report says only 23 of the more than 100 schools receiving the grants are small simply because of isolation or "geographic necessity."

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) The special grants for small schools came into being in the late 1990s, when the state education fund was established. 

Since then, the grants have grown into a $7 million dollar program that helps 104 schools on the basis of low enrollment and small class size.

Last year, amid pressure to rein in education spending and organize schools more efficiently, the Legislature directed the department to consider another factor: geography.

(James) "The charge was … to look at those school districts that had schools that were small because they were a long ways from somewhere else, because it said geographic necessity."

(Keese) Brad James is the Education Department’s finance manager. He says the department used maps and mileage software to plot the distance between those schools that are receiving the grants and the schools nearest to them.

James says the group also factored in topography, road conditions and difficulty of travel.

(James) "And we came up with that list of 23 schools that we thought were far enough away from another school with similar grade configuration."

(Keese) For the 81 remaining small schools, the study recommends ending the grants gradually over two years.

The study doesn’t call for any schools to merge or close. But James says if the Legislature adopts the geographic criterion, lost revenues will mean higher taxes in districts that make no changes.

Burlington Representative Joey Donovan chairs the House Education Committee. She says the report is a useful tool, but there’s a lot of work and information needed before it leads to action.

(Donovan) "Certainly one of the interests that I have is that I’d want to see the test scores from those schools. Are the kids thriving there? And I know that some small schools are doing enormously well."

(Keese) Donovan says public testimony will be important.

(Donovan) "We do believe in local control. And we do believe that it is the local communities that know their community, know their culture…. And they also know their tax base and they will have to make some of these decisions in the years to come as we face declining enrollments."

(Keese) Vermont Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca says he believes in local control, too. But he adds that education funding in Vermont is a statewide system.

(Vilaseca) "So the more expenses we have and the more we duplicate services around the state, the less money there is for everybody…. Decisions made by me in Westford are impacted and paid for by people who live in southern Vermont. Decisions made in Franklin County are paid for by people who live in Montpelier."

(Keese) Vilaseca says the real issue is how to provide the best education possible, in a time of shrinking student populations and a tight economy.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese

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