Editorial: A rewrite for more consolidation

ANGELO LYNN

In the political tug of war pitting small schools against districts that want to close them, a newly crafted bill, H.727, intentionally flies in the face of efforts to preserve Vermont’s small schools — even when those communities vote massively to support them. But the bill is not entirely wrong.

His intention is to ensure that cities considering pulling out of their districts fully understand the implications. To this end, the relevant section of the law (Section 724) adds a more vigorous process for small towns to undertake, requiring 17 pages to describe, including 14 pages of requirements before the first stage of the current withdrawal process can to start. (See the story on page 1A). It’s a process designed largely by the State Board of Education, which over the past year has displayed a blatant bias against withdrawal and for consolidation.

Those who have studied the new wording of the bill recognize the increased difficulties.

• Herb Olson, a member of the Starksboro Save our Schools effort, says it’s “essentially an attempt to suppress the vote without saying, ‘You don’t have a vote.’

• Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, said the bill “adds hurdles and increases the time it takes for a city to opt out of a unionized school district, further removing the city’s ability to engage in a genuine democratic process regarding the school she knows best.”

• Lincoln Selection Committee member Paul Forlenza, whose city was excluded from the new law and will not be affected, said he didn’t think Lincoln “would have gotten as far as we’ve come,” had the new law been in effect when Lincoln began his successful effort to opt out.

Additionally, the bill adds a completely unnecessary requirement that smaller schools get a 60% supermajority vote to opt out if the SBE gives a negative opinion on a school’s opt-out plan. There could be no more blatant bias in a bill than a requirement that asks what no other bill does. In arguing that the 60% requirement should be removed, Lincoln City Attorney Karen Lueders explained that no similar requirement is found “anywhere else in our voting laws…If the reasoning of the advice is valid, the council (SBE) should have confidence that the electorate will appreciate reasoning and voting intelligently.

But reasonable assessment by the community wishing to keep its small school open is not the purpose of Section 724. On the contrary, the purpose of Section 724 is simply to make removal more difficult and unlikely. This is especially true because the mechanics of a successful withdrawal effort are not easily accessible.

Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, rightly suggests tough questions need to be addressed before a pullout effort results in a municipal vote. These questions include: how a school will transport its children to and from school, how the school will manage back-office management or coordinate the program with its middle and high school partners, and, he says, the most important of all, how the independent school will deal with special education.

Realistically, local options exist for a small school to handle transportation and front and back office requirements without excessive costs. However, the coordination of curriculum and special education requires a broader framework. This has always been the case. The failure of Bill 46 is that it neglected to define a process for removing a small school while managing these two issues.

For example, this law could have (perhaps should have) required that a district cannot propose the closure of a small school (and therefore recognize the cost savings) without also offering to be the active partner in the secondary grades (middle and high school) and also offering to provide special education to students at that school if he chose to opt out. This would have put more responsibility on the school district before its decision to close a school and would have made this board more thoughtful in its deliberations.

Similarly, when drafting new language for H.727, this approach could have been taken by the House committee – creating a workable path for schools wishing to opt out. The reason the committee chose to make things harder is clear: like the SBE, its bias is to promote school consolidation and weed out small schools.

It’s not new.

For decades, attempts to adopt measures to achieve this have failed. The brilliance of Bill 46 was that it tackled the issue on a piecemeal basis: first, to change the cumbersome governance of the supervisory unions and the multiple boards of directors that involved (the Addison Central Supervisory Union had nine distinct); second, offering a five-year tax incentive that encouraged the consolidation of governance into one board, along with a promise not to close any schools in the early years; and third, to provide a process for small schools to opt out of the district and stay open. All the bases were apparently covered, including that important safeguard for cities to keep their schools — and their cities — vibrant.

However, for the legislator to reverse this construction now and make withdrawal a near impossibility for small schools threatened with closure is not only dishonest, but reckless.

As we’ve said before, there’s wisdom in a city’s wholehearted effort to keep its school alive and its community thriving. To dismiss this goes against Vermont’s tradition of honoring each city’s uniqueness and independence, and undermines the very essence of much of the state’s rural charm.

As this bill is debated in the Senate, we encourage a shift in legislative bias from those who would push for consolidation to those who see value in keeping Vermont’s small towns and schools alive.

This will require a rewrite of Section 724 which places more equal responsibility on the school district when it decides to close a school and the costs it will share. It’s not hard to imagine, but the House Education Committee and the SBE chose to look the other way. The Senate should right that wrong.

Angelo Lynn

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