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Published in Print: February 17, 2016, as Consolidation Fight Erupts in Vermont

Consolidation Push Roils Vermont Landscape

Smilie Memorial Elementary School, in Bolton, Vt., is part of a small rural district that merged with another.
Smilie Memorial Elementary School, in Bolton, Vt., is part of a small rural district that merged with another.
—Caleb Kenna for Education Week

Rural Districts Put on Hot Seat

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Consolidating rural school districts with sparse enrollment is a complicated—and contentious—process that can unfold over several years.

Case in point: Vermont, where the issue has been roiling the local and legislative landscape for a year now.

Amid rising education costs for a rapidly dwindling student population, that state's legislature last year passed a law aiming to reward residents of districts willing to consolidate with a series of tax breaks—and to significantly increase the local homestead-tax rate on those districts that stay independent and spend beyond a series of caps set by the state.

The state—which spends an average of $18,000 per student, the highest rate in the nation—has more than 280 districts, serving just 80,000 students. At least 79 of those districts have fewer than 100 students, and one district has just 19.

By 2018, the state legislature hopes the consolidation law will cut the number of districts in half, allowing schools to better share academic and administrative resources.

Residents in 10 areas throughout the state will vote March 1 on whether to consolidate their surrounding districts at the school boards' request.

"We needed to change as a matter of survival," said Jeffrey Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, which supports the new law.

But many Vermont residents who will have to vote on consolidation efforts think the measure will erode the democratic process and lead to the closing of small schools around the mostly rural state.

"Kids here are able to find a niche, and they aren't shuffled along in large groups," said Martha Allen, the president of the Vermont Education Association, the state teachers' union, which is opposed to the law. "It's that kind of a thing that I don't want to lose in our state. The conversation about students and their offerings gets lost when it turns into a spreadsheet with dollars and cents."

Shifting Population

Flocking Together

Several states are weighing the consolidation of small, rural districts as a way to boost efficiency and escape skyrocketing administrative costs. Among them:

ALASKA: Protests by parents, teachers, and students erupted after the head of the House budget committee last fall suggested the closure of schools with fewer than 25 students in the mostly rural state as a way to save state money in the face of a deficit.

KANSAS: After fierce debate, the House education committee killed a bill last week that would have turned all of the state’s districts into countywide districts, reducing the number of districts from 286 statewide to 132. The proposal resulted in large protests from several advocacy organizations, superintendents, and parents throughout the state.

OKLAHOMA: A state senator has proposed eliminating all of the state’s K-8 districts and consolidating them with larger neighboring districts. A separate bill proposes to allow districts to annex neighboring districts with fewer than 300 students.

VERMONT: The state’s legislature last year passed Act 46, which gives tax breaks to districts willing to consolidate with neighboring districts. The state has 278 districts with just 80,000 students. Districts that refuse to consolidate—all but 12 of Vermont’s 278 districts so far— would face spending caps.

Legislatures across the country consolidated thousands of school districts over the past century, in tandem with a shift in the population out of rural areas and into cities.

In 1930, the country had 130,000 districts averaging 170 students each, said John Yinger, a researcher at Syracuse University who has studied the impact of consolidations in New York state. Today, there are just 13,000 districts, and the typical size is more like 5,000 students, the researcher said.

Interest in consolidating districts also has emerged in states such as Alaska, Kansas, and Oklahoma this year.

Consolidation efforts can be complicated by factors including determining new pay scales for teachers in combined districts, preventing tax rates from surging in poor districts that merge with wealthier districts, and figuring out how to redesign school zones, said Yinger.

He said states can sometimes save money on consolidations, but only if districts are very small.

"The cost to provide education varies enormously across districts," Yinger said, pointing out that states most times keep class sizes small and pay teachers higher wages when merging districts.

Historically, in addition to potential savings, those who favored consolidation also touted the potential for more-efficient management, expanded extracurricular offerings, and less bureaucracy.

Balancing all those factors can cause political heartburn and pushback from rural communities concerned both about financial factors and the impact consolidation can have on a community's identity. It's fair to say that nowhere has that fight been more heated in recent months than in Vermont.

Its school system is a patchwork of governance structures, with many school boards determining policy for just one or two schools.

Board meetings can get into the minute details of whether a group of students needs a new curricula or if a particular school bus is outdated. And it's not uncommon to see more than a quarter of a town's population show up to vote on its school district's budget.

"There's a lot of trust, neighborliness, reciprocity, and a sense of community here," said Susan Clark, a local official in Middlesex, Vt., who has also written extensively about the state's governance structures. "There's a sense that the government is a 'we,' not a 'they.' If we're having a problem with a budget, we need to roll up our sleeves and find out where to make cuts."

Strong Bonds

In the classroom, teachers build strong bonds with students and are quick to realize students' shortcomings, said Allen of the teachers' union. She attributes the state's high scores on national tests to small classrooms and the nimble structure of the state's governance. The state's average class size ratio is 10 students for every teacher, according to the state education department.

"We've created these really close-knit communities where everybody wants the kids to succeed," Allen said. "All of this takes human capital to make it work the way it should work."

But the state's K-12 enrollment has been dropping in recent years, from 100,000 in 2000 to just 80,000 students today.

Because the districts are so small and the state's funding formula is based on enrollment, board members in tiny districts across the state found themselves laying off staff members if they lost just a dozen students, or forgoing building upgrades and cutting extracurricular activities.

After several years of debating the impact of the state's many small and under-resourced districts, legislators last April passed Act 46 as a way to both encourage—and prod—voters to merge their local districts with neighboring ones. While some communities previously had discussed the possibility of merging to cut down on layoffs, board members had a hard time getting local residents to buy into it.

The new law provides for a series of tax cuts over several years for districts that meet certain criteria and choose to merge. For those that don't, districts have to abide by funding thresholds that increase local homestead-tax rates if they exceed those spending caps.

The state's education department last year provided grants to at least 27 groupings of districts (known as supervisory unions) to help them study the feasibility of merging with surrounding districts.

Any merger must be placed before voters. The voters have until the end of next school year to decide whether to merge. After that, the state's department of education will step in and look at the feasibility of a merger, according to the law.

The measure prohibits any school from being closed within the first four years of operation without voters' approval. Districts that don't merge by the end of next year will have their budgets subjected to intense scrutiny by the legislature and state board of education.

John Alberghini, the superintendent of the Mount Mansfield school district, which was created when seven districts merged, said when he previously oversaw eight separate districts, he found himself making tough decisions on how to avoid having local residents' tax rates climb.

"Because of the finance system, the budgets became very volatile," he said. "You lost one or two students, and the tax rate could go way up [unless the district cut] really important programs for students."

Two years ago, all but one of the districts in his community voted to merge, allowing him to save more than $100,000 in a budget of more than $40 million. He also said the combined district has been able to save its unified arts program and its support for at-risk students.

"We had to ask ourselves if we are better off united or separate," he said. "What can we do better for students, taxpayers, and the community?"

Pushing Back

But the push to consolidate has not gone over so well with many other districts, in large part because of the spending thresholds. Some local educators are warning that the spending caps will force program cuts and layoffs.

"It's unnerving to think how debilitating these cuts will be," Brian Schaffer, the principal of Lamoille Union High School, in Hyde Park, Vt., wrote in a letter addressed to legislators. "The spending cap will have a detrimental effect on the quality of education in our school."

The state legislature decided in January to ease those restrictions for now but eliminate them by 2018. In the meantime, the legislature continues to debate how best to encourage consolidations in the coming year.

"Consolidation may be a very good idea in some districts, maybe in most districts," said Sen. Dick McCormack, a Democrat who voted against last year's measure. "I don't have a scientific basis for concluding that. There's nothing stopping communities from consolidating anyway. They didn't need to be pressured. The idea that the top-down, heavy-hand approach of the state struck me as gratuitous."

Vol. 35, Issue 21, Pages 1,19

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