Top Thinkers Look For Better Way To Run Vermont’s Schools

Today, Vermont has more than 300 school buildings with 284 school districts governed by more than 1,300 elected school board members — all to operate a school system that has fewer than 100,000 students.

A year from now, Vermonters may find that mix onerous. Or they might think the current system suits them just fine.

Education Commissioner Richard Cate expects to get an earful between now and then as he and others embark on a yearlong effort to find out what is working, and what is not working, with the way education is governed in Vermont.

In a paper on education governance issued in May, Cate said during his 30 months as commissioner he has heard recurring themes from students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Those issues deal with quality, cost, declining student enrollment, and a short supply of people running for school boards.

While most Vermont students perform at the same level or above their peers, about a third do not, Cate states in his report. At the same time, Vermont ranks among the top five spending states per student in the country.

There are fewer students enrolled in Vermont schools today than a decade ago: In 1996, there were about 105,600, while today that number is approaching 97,000 and may drop to as low as 92,000. Finally, the annual turnover rate for superintendents and principals often hovers as high as 25 percent, and there is also a high vacancy rate on local school boards, according to Cate’s analysis.

Cate’s effort is not a first; in fact, there have been dozens of attempts that have led to the current system.

To spur discussion, Cate’s has outlined one idea: Reduce the number of school districts to 63, and allow public school choice within these expanded districts, among other things.

The idea is not to save money from day one, though Cate said over time that this approach could save local taxpayers money while maintaining local input on many key decisions, from curriculum to staff hiring.

The idea is to ease the burden on many existing school board members, and hopefully improve the overall quality of education in Vermont.

“On the first day, it’s about improving outcomes for kids and a system that doesn’t burn up as much human capital,” said Cate. “We’re chewing up a lot of people unnecessarily doing things 284 times around the state. Some people say that’s the way we like it, but I wouldn’t look at this as some instantaneous cost savings to the system [but rather] see it as being a system that is much more transparent and much more simple.”

That said, Cate believes over time there would be more ways to save money, or at least slow the growth of the cost of education. And, his idea could lead to better allocation of resources to ensure students are meeting local expectations as well as state and federal standards, he said.

Rising health care costs, cost-of-living increases, fuel costs, and other factors continue to drive up school budgets in Vermont. In 1997, Vermont spent roughly $716 million to care for students; in 2006 that number is more than $1.3 billion, according to Education Department figures.

The student of a two-room schoolhouse himself, Cate said his proposal could help stave off further consolidation among smaller schools, allowing them to pool resources and remain successful.

Creating larger districts may also allow for more chances to negotiate teacher’s contracts on a regional basis as all schools would fall under the jurisdiction of a larger board, he said.

“We really have to keep our eye on the ball in terms of kids here,” Cate said.

With declining enrollment and a possible teacher shortage in the coming years, Vermonters may have no choice but to take a hard look at their school system to ensure that students receive the best education given the resources at hand.

On June 20, the State Board of Education met for several hours to talk about how to best engage a variety of stakeholders in the conversation — from parent teacher organizations (PTOs) to various education associations — and how to gather that information.

“We think the public, at least we hope strongly that the public will in fact participate and become involved in this process,” said Tom James of Essex, chairman of the state board. “People are already beginning to share their thoughts. Near the end of his white paper, the commissioner asks, rhetorically, if you think the current system is working. If you answer yes, well the conversation is over. If the answer is no, then that is what it is all about.”

James said the goal of this effort is not to solve a problem in the next year, but to find out what problems need to be solved.

With dozens of reform efforts kindled over the past three decades, many are openly wondering what makes Cate’s different, and how it might succeed where others have failed.

A group of lawmakers is several years along into a similar effort — and has provided nearly $100,000 in grants to more than a dozen school districts throughout Vermont to help spur similar discussions about how best to change governance structures. Several, including districts in Addison, Bennington, Franklin, and Rutland counties, are looking at consolidating single and union school districts.

In the past decade, other school districts have informally explored whether to merge. Winooski, for example, has had several discussions over the years with neighbors in Colchester and Burlington about combining into one district.

Tilled soil

From 1914 to 1987, there were more than 20 studies done on education governance. In 1912, Gov. Allen Fletcher urged the Legislature to study school oversight in order to “promote the ends of unity, harmony, economy and efficiency.”

Lawmakers took up a similar charge less than three years ago. Rep. Kathy LaVoie, R-Swanton, and Sen. Hinda Miller, D-Chittenden, worked together to create a Council on Education Governance, which was charged with looking at ways to improve how Vermont’s schools were governed.

Today, that committee is co-chaired by LaVoie and Sen. Don Collins, D-Franklin.

The group, in working with the Snelling Center for Government and others, secured a $100,000 Wallace Foundation grant to examine education governance in Vermont and look for solutions to some of the vexing problems.

LaVoie said the group has awarded grants and is awaiting results from some of those discussions, and expects to share that information publicly once it is all gathered.

“I think the reasons that some of these efforts have failed in the past is because they have been top-down efforts,” said LaVoie. “That’s why what we have been doing is to empower communities to have these discussions, and to get ideas from the bottom up.”

Collins, a former superintendent and currently a member of the Swanton School Board, has several ideas from his work at the local level about what would work.

“When I retired as a superintendent in Franklin County, I suggested that we should have two [districts] for the entire county,” said Collins. At the time of his retirement, there were five superintendents.

“I am pleased that [Cate] is looking at this,” said Collins. “But I think the next step is to be honest in looking at combining services that are being duplicated in each supervisory union.”

Sen. Wendy Wilton, R-Rutland, resigned from the council because she believed there was too much talk, and too little action, to actually change governance structures in the communities that received the grant money.

While the grants were well-intended, Wilton said, they “ran afoul on one key issue that most plagues local school governance, which is that it is mostly controlled by superintendents and supervisory district boards” who do not want to lose their grip on control.

“There is nothing in the infrastructure that supports real change,” Wilton said.

Wilton said Cate’s talking points should be followed through, and would have an immediate impact by reducing costs and freeing up energy on school boards currently stretched thin.

“I think if we were to have fewer boards, with fewer people on it and superintendents not answering to as many boards that you would see some great ideas coming forward,” said Wilton.

The governance committee plans to continue to meet on this issue, and LaVoie said she hopes its work will inform the debate that Cate is stimulating.

If nothing else, committee members believe that a go-slow approach will be the only way to achieve significant reforms down the road, step-by-step. Anything radical and immediate is likely to be rejected, like other efforts in the past.

In 1987, a proposal to divide the state into 65 K-12 districts went nowhere. That was less than a decade after a 1979 proposal to consolidate school boards into one board within each supervisory district.

“I’m not saying I have the magic answer, but I think what it comes down to is that people don’t want to go too fast too far; that’s when Vermonters get their backs up,” said Collins.

Choice and democracy

Whenever you open a discussion on education, teachers, students, taxpayers, and others perk up instantly.

Proponents of charter schools and more public school choice see governance reform as only a part of the larger problem — tackling the rising school costs as a result of Act 60 and Act 68, the two education spending reform efforts of the past decade.

“I think it’s great that [Cate] wants to start that debate,” said Rob Roper of Vermont Freedom Works and Vermonters for Better Education. But, Roper is concerned that the discussion will be predisposed to favor teachers rather than taxpayers.

Roper said while governance is a good place to start, the state should look more fundamentally at allowing charter schools to take root as a way to spur innovation in the classroom and allow some smaller school districts to become more entrepreneurial and compete for students, thereby lowering costs to attract pupils.

Roper believes Vermonters want both improved education outcomes and tax relief. Consolidation could save money by allowing for more sharing of teachers across a district, said Roper.

Angelo Dorta, president of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, which represents 11,000 teachers, is also worried that Cate’s discussion already has a predetermined premise — that small schools and school districts are less efficient.

“I get nervous that a conversation is being invited with a predetermined outcome in mind,” said Dorta. “That may be an acceptable outcome, but let’s make sure we have all elements above board in an unbiased way.”

Dorta said Vermonters need to decide what kind of education students need in the 21st century, which is far different than what students were taught 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

“We’re in a new era; we’re in a globalized era where students need more advanced placement courses, technology, and the most high quality, caring, and licensed teachers,” said Dorta. “On the other side, we have the role of our local community schools … that is where we see democracy in action.”

Cate acknowledges that a lot of people have been contacting him about his proposal already, and most have been positive, but he knows there are likely to be those who have concerns about his ideas.

He stressed that despite his own ideas about governance reform, he envisions this process at the end of the year to culminate in “a people’s report to the people of Vermont.”

Cate is proposing to:

• Reduce the number of school districts in Vermont from 284 to 63.

• Align new school district boundaries with existing supervisory union and school district boundaries.

• Have school boards consist of one member elected from each municipality within the new school district boundaries. Votes would be weighted to address the one-person, one-vote requirement. Boards of districts that include fewer than five municipalities would consist of five members with one member from each municipality and the remaining members elected at-large from the district. Districts with large populations, and multiple state representative districts, could have larger boards with a board member from each of their existing districts/wards.

• Have the school board of each district appoint a superintendent as the chief executive officer and educational leader of the district.

• Have the superintendent, with the consent of the school board, appoint the principals of the schools and the other administrators in the district.

• Have provisions for the means by which uniform district-wide contracts would be put in place in the new districts where there were previously multiple teacher or support staff contracts.

• Allow students and parents to choose which Vermont public school a student would attend, subject to capacity, and eliminate provisions in the aid formula related to per-student costs.