MONTPELIER — It’s been three years since the Legislature passed a law to encourage the consolidation of school districts and supervisory unions. Thus far, however, there has been nearly no movement toward consolidation, and state education officials are wondering what else they can do.
By a wide margin in August, the State Board of Education voted not to order the merger of the Battenkill Valley and Bennington-Rutland supervisory unions. The decision left Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca looking at the effectiveness of Act 153, which provides financial incentives to encourage consolidation.
“It’s the smallest (supervisory union) in the state,” Vilaseca said of Battenkill Valley, “and if we can’t make it happen there, what’s the point of continuing to put these communities through the wringer?”
It was a hand-wringing experience for residents of the Battenkill Valley member towns of Arlington, Sandgate and Sunderland, many of whom expressed reluctance to merge with Bennington-Rutland and were strongly opposed to merging with the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union.
Act 153, and the accompanying legislation in Act 156, provides a host of financial perks to encourage consolidation, from $10,000 to conduct a study of the financial and educational benefits of consolidation, to $150,000 when a merger actually happens.
So far, there has been exactly one supervisory union consolidation, between the Rutland-Windsor and the Windsor Southwest supervisory unions, which as of July 1 are now collectively the Two Rivers Supervisory Union.
There has also been exactly one school district consolidation to create a regional education district, referred to by education officials as an RED. The southern Vermont mountain towns of Landgrove, Londonderry, Peru and Weston — each of which was its own district — merged with the Flood Brook Union School District to create the Mountain Towns RED.
That makes two mergers in three years. Others are possibly in the works; the Washington South Supervisory Union completed a study in January and is waiting for results from a study by Windsor Northwest, due to the State Board of Education in November.
A supervisory union is an administrative body created by the State Board of Education and consisting of two or more school districts.
Education officials are in agreement that consolidation must happen, while not necessarily agreeing on how to make it happen.
“It’s disappointing that more towns haven’t taken advantage of this,” said Stephan Morse, chairman of the State Board of Education. “With 300 school districts in the state, we’re not effectively providing the best education for our students.”
Morse pointed to the state’s student population, which in the past four years has shrunk from about 110,000 students to less than 80,000.
“We have an increasing cost and decreasing population, and from a corporate perspective, that would indicate we need to consolidate,” he said.
On this point, he and Vilaseca are in agreement. Vilaseca pointed out that in the past year, the state’s student population decreased by 1 percent while education budgets rose by 5 percent.
Vilaseca said he would like to see more REDs, such as the Mountain Towns RED.
“I’m not a big fan of larger S.U.s,” he said. “The idea of having a school district that contains four or five towns is the way to go. They have local representation while retaining a measure of school choice.”
Perhaps realizing that the current method of letting supervisory unions find each other and consolidate has not worked, state education officials this fall will take a big-picture look at consolidation.
“What we’ve agreed to look at is the whole supervisory map, and see how we might encourage consolidation, Morse said.
Those discussions are still in the very early stages and it is unclear what additional methods the state might use to encourage consolidation, but Vilaseca pointed to the power that rests with the State Board of Education.
“The Board has the authority at any time to review and reconfigure the boundary lines of an S.U.,” he said.
While the Board has the authority to consolidate districts, Morse was adamant that any consolidations must be voluntary.
“Let me be clear here: I am opposed to mandatory consolidation,” he said.
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