The public testimony regarding H.883, which mandates sweeping statewide school governance consolidation, brought home the gravity of our situation. Two hours was a long time to sit in that crowded, hot room so full of sad stories. There was so much pleading, asking the Legislature to intervene to help the students in
their small school get the opportunities that other students get, help unsustainable schools merge when others have refused them, help ease the flow of students from school to school, help serve the kids falling through the cracks, and, of course, help us save money.
To my mind, the testimony revealed two things. First, this bill is a panacea — a veritable dreamcatcher. Owing to its loftiness of goals and its dearth of details, it is a totally different means of deliverance to different people depending upon their frustrations and passions — some of them entirely conflicting. Second, the Agency of Education and the Legislature have utterly failed struggling communities for a long time, providing no leadership, effective supports or appropriate incentives to align interests and better serve students and taxpayers.
The question the testimony raised for me is why, when there is failure on the part of some districts to collaborate and of the leadership to constructively target interventions and align incentives, all town school boards would have to be eliminated across the entire state in order for the problems to be solved.
Despite regions of dysfunction, some school unions have managed to serve all their local students well. Some operate executive committee boards that allow important work to get done across all schools. Some are very efficient, effective and collaborative. Here in Washington West all that is true, and ours is not the only school union performing with excellence.
The Agency of Education and Legislature have demonstrated a total lack of effective leadership in solving problems in uncoordinated and inefficient school unions thus far. Spending over $400,000 for every school union in our state, 10 percent more than last year, and planning another increase of over 9 percent next year, why has there been no quality, productive work from them in this area? Local school boards certainly aren’t to blame. We don’t direct the use of agency resources or manage the deliverables of its staff. The Agency of Education is not accountable to us, or anyone watchful it would seem.
Despite the Legislature’s and Agency of Education’s failure to hold anybody accountable at any level, and armed with no data, no prioritization of work, and no implementation plan, the powers that be are chomping at the bit to eliminate the entire system of town school districts and local budget votes statewide. They want us to believe this is not a failure of leadership and incentives from above, but about the narrow views of local school boards, who volunteer tremendous amounts of their time to, apparently, actively undermine the education available to their communities’ children.
If we truly want to increase equity of opportunity and improve efficiency, we need to tackle the funding barriers that put schools at odds in the first place. Today, too often working together isn’t an exercise in determining what is best for students or resolving if we have a common vision of education, it is an exercise in dodging Act 68 bullets. The design of Act 68 creates barriers that have persisted now for nearly 20 years. We need to call leadership on scapegoating hardworking community members for the leadership’s failures.
If we were to redesign our education spending formula, something our taxpayers desperately need, we have the opportunity to align, share and allow greater choice for students — all without destroying our local engagement and valuable traditions. We could have local votes for spending that local schools actually control, not penalize them for federal and state mandates. We could ensure more equitable access to resources, something greatly needed with a variance of over 300 percent in actual spending per student across districts today — more disparity than we had when Act 60 was originally passed.
Meanwhile, if we proceed with H.883, with all the dreams that fuel it and without education funding reform, some inevitable things will happen.
Spending will go up as we incur the costs of consolidation work, roll up salaries and true up opportunities in some regions.
More budgets will fail as the tax increases push more taxpayers over the edge.
Where taxpayers across regional districts vote down more spending, opportunities for all students across entire regions will decrease or small schools will be closed — regardless of their education quality, how much the town pays into the education fund or the school’s value to the community.
There will be further decline in town meeting traditions, community dialogue and engagement, the underpinnings of our democracy.
Possibly bending any curve on actual costs is a long way off with this plan, and the expectations for wage increases and increased opportunity are front and center. Costs of implementation and increases in spending at the Agency of Education all translate to less money to fund actual education or a major punch to the gut of taxpayers.
I know it sounds old-fashioned, but getting real about how much money is in our wallets and what we can afford should factor into the discussion. Getting real about the cost of living in Vermont for families, young adults trying to build their future, and seniors trying to stay solvent to the end of their days is important to our children as well. Children are not immune to the downsides of financial insecurity and the loss of community support. Being insensitive to this as we propose to sally forth on sweeping reforms that spend more money and introduce no greater financial accountability or restraint is detrimental to Vermonters young and old.
Education funding reform is the action that taxpayers, school districts and students need most. Where is the work on that front? I have worked hard on this issue in recent months to no avail. The Agency of Education doesn’t return emails or calls. The Legislature clears it from its plate. I see zero effort on this front. It would appear that legislation to underpin fiscal responsibility isn’t nearly as appealing as, say, weaving dreamcatchers.
Heidi Spear is a school board member in Fayston.
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