Over the past several weeks, my concerns about Act 46 -- the school district consolidation law passed last spring -- have gained a bit of attention. As I have stated, I believe it is a law that was passed with the best of intentions. I agree that our property taxes are too high, our student population is shrinking, and that some of our schools are failing our children. We need to change. The question is: How?
As my representatives and senators will tell you, I was surprised by some components of the version of the bill that was approved by the House last winter and I immediately reached out through my delegation to express my concerns as a parent and a taxpayer. The bill later approved by the Senate was, in fact, a piece of legislation that would have allowed us to have an important conversation about the future of our education system and would have facilitated and incentivized mergers that had been in the works for several years, as well as “simple” mergers for some supervisory unions already in a good position to consolidate school boards and budgets.
Unfortunately, the final legislation -- Act 46 -- contains provisions that may actually prevent the thoughtful, innovative kinds of conversation we need to have and does not encourage some cost-saving measures that would allow us to continue to have one of the best K-12 education systems in the country. In the meantime, the legislation could lead to the closure of some small schools that are already delivering a high-quality education at a cost their community can afford. These closings would happen before we have the chance to achieve efficiencies by using new approaches--such as assisted distance learning--to improve the efficient delivery of even better education.
Over the last month, volunteers have put together gatherings across the state and in every county to talk to Vermonters about our future. Concerns about Act 46 came up at nearly every one. Vermonters are anxious about how Act 46 will affect the quality of education for their children and other children in their communities. They are worried that it will actually raise their property taxes dramatically if they just maintain their current programs. The are concerned it will reduce the community engagement that has historically led to countless hours of volunteer time in our schools. Most of all, they don’t have the information they need to understand the options for their communities. All they see are looming deadlines for the loss of school grants, property tax incentives that will go to other towns that are able to more quickly comply with Act 46 requirements, and the eventual threat of the state merging their districts if they don’t start down a path soon.
As the parent of three children attending Hartland Elementary School, I have seen firsthand how Act 46 is creating confusion in our community. Our supervisory union has always had a principal-led structure and includes communities that offer high school choice, one that operates a high school, and one that has a high-performing K–6 small school. Meeting the accelerated timeline to avoid the loss of small school support in one of our towns would require us to complete a proposal by December for a March vote. In response, our SU board quickly organized the required public forums to discuss a plan for merging. The Agency of Education didn’t have the staff to participate in the meetings and we didn’t receive financial impact numbers until five meetings had taken place; these numbers revealed that the largest town in our SU would have an increase in taxes even in year one of the incentives. Then, the State Board ruled in September that the plan proposed by the SU would not be allowed, sending everyone back to the drawing board. I don’t think this is the kind of process or outcome that the authors of Act 46 had in mind when they crafted this legislation.
To be clear, I do not think repeal of Act 46 is necessary, but the legislature needs to make some changes. Otherwise, the law could do real harm to what should be a thoughtful, innovative process during the first real reimagining of our schools in 100 years.
- Double Property Tax Penalty- A component of Act 46 is the so-called variable spending caps, which tells communities that if their spending per pupil increases in 2016 by 3% or more (in some towns it is as low as 0.6%), the community will have to pay double property taxes on the excess amount. This may sound like a sensible plan to get spending under control, but in fact it prevents long-range planning and affects communities in an inequitable way. Many of the factors driving budget increases -- multi-year contractual raises, health insurance, special education costs, and others -- are beyond the control of the local school board. If a small community loses a few students or has a new special education student arrive, it will easily exceed the cap. Healthcare insurance, for example, is currently projected to increase nearly 8% for schools. Towns have crafted spending plans over many years, not anticipating this kind of penalty, and many have made investments now that will help reduce spending later. By forcing districts to abandon these investments, we may actually force more spending later. Districts that decided to repair the roof this year will be fine, whereas those that scheduled it for next year will be hit by the double tax. Moreover, the ACLU has noted that the penalty will hit even low-spending communities that want to make an investment in their schools to ensure they provide an adequate education. This means that a town like Lowell would have to pay significantly higher taxes in order to spend the same amount per pupil as is spent in a higher spending town. This is a scenario that likely makes Act 46 unconstitutional and certainly makes it unfair. Recommendation: Eliminate the double property tax.
- Timeline - The types of changes envisioned in this law are the most profound our communities have experienced in a hundred years. Change needs to happen, but we need to recognize that as a part of this change districts will be completely transforming their school governance and budgeting. Communities will be losing direct control over their school budgets and, in many cases, will be ceding control to much larger communities or groups of towns that have not worked together in the past. The legislation, unfortunately, only retains small school grants and the larger incentives for those districts that have an approved merger completed by June 2016. For communities trying to merge districts that have high school choice and districts that operate a high school, a merger may involve either closing a small high school or ending traditional high school choice arrangements that have been in place for generations. Unless a merger was in the works for years, this is much too short a timeline to do it right. Recommendation: Extend small school grants and larger incentives until June 2019, and provide the option for small school grants to continue in alternative structures.
- Capacity at the Agency of Education - The Department of Education is small, and it was not given any additional staff to work with communities to provide technical assistance, financial information, or even facilitate planning sessions for what merged schools or alternative arrangements might look like. There are also some communities that don’t have obvious partner districts, and other ones now being courted by multiple towns without being given clear guidelines on how to evaluate these different options. This has left school boards and communities having to make decisions without good -- much less expert -- information about best practices or the budget implications of various options. Recommendation: Six two-year positions at the Department of Education to work with communities across the state through the merger deadline.
- 900 student mandate - The legislation mandates that by 2018 no school district will have fewer than 900 students. The first concern is that this number is arbitrary, something highlighted by the fact that the number was actually 1200 until, as I understand it, the committee chair needed a vote and could only get it if the number of students was lowered to 900, so the town of another legislator would not have to merge. More importantly, it does not reflect the reality of our communities or what makes a school an excellent value. In some corners of our state, 900 may be the magic number that will allow a district to achieve equity, quality, and sustainability, but over the mountain another district may find that 407 students is the right size to achieve those same goals. A larger district might need 1400 students. Our state has towns and villages of widely varying size and configurations. Any law must reflect these differences and offer some flexibility to communities. In some places, a 900 student count will mean a school board and budget covering a dozen or more communities; in this scenario, many communities will lose all practical control over the future of their schools. I find it particularly unfortunate that a prescription for governance came before the comprehensive quality review that is just now underway. One would hope that quality evaluation would come first before implementing any district consolidation requirements. Recommendation: Create consolidation requirements that are related to educational return on investment. If a school is not delivering a strong education, it needs to figure out a way to do it with help from the DOE or be closed. If the school is spending 50% more than the state average, causing a drain on the education fund, it probably needs to consolidate. If a district is smaller than 900 students and providing an excellent education at a reasonable cost, it should be able to continue to do so. If closing a school means that kindergartners will have to ride on a bus for an hour to get to school, we have to work together as a state to find a different solution.
While I have concerns about these specific aspects of Act 46, some will be surprised to hear that, in many ways, I don’t think the legislation went far enough. Until we have leadership to build an economy that works for all of Vermont, we need to figure out how to provide a first-class education to our significantly smaller number of students. Additionally, we must do so in a way that doesn’t make commuting distances in many parts of the state so long that no family will ever move to those places again, which would hollow out communities in our rural areas.
In my years of management in the private and public sector, I have always looked to eliminate overhead wherever possible, so as to concentrate resources where they will have the greatest benefit. In education, this means eliminating costs that don’t directly involve teaching, but maintaining the accountable, localized management and community engagement that has always allowed Vermont schools to deliver high value for a state of our size.
Here is a platform for a Vermont education system of the future, one that leverages the technology of today with our two hundred year old tradition of community engagement.
- Invest in assisted distance learning - There is a revolution happening in education across the country that allows students to receive curricula delivered by videoconference and still interact with teachers and other students. The set-up cost for this kind of learning environment is falling quickly, and students could receive assistance in their home school from a multi-grade teacher. While not as ideal as an in-person, intimate setting with teachers teaching each individual subject, it is much better than a one-hour commute to school each way and could lead to better outcomes.
- Centralize back-end operations at the state level - With cloud computing, there is no reason that payroll functions, email platforms, electronic student records, and scheduling software need to be purchased and maintained at the school or even supervisory union level. We can reduce costs for all schools by centralizing these functions at the state level and using bulk purchasing licenses. A consolidated student record can also help support low-income students who may switch schools on a regular basis.
- Pay for extraordinary (very high cost) special education at the state level with general fund dollars - The arrival of young people with significant special education needs can generate chaos in budget planning at a given school and stigmatize these students and their families. We can pay for extraordinary special education needs at the state level, using only general fund dollars, and allow these students to receive services without creating a disproportionate hardship on their particular school districts.
- Reduce the number of superintendents by half - We do not need 59 superintendents for less than 80,000 students. With centralized administrative services at the state level and fewer students, the need for all of these positions is unnecessary. In larger districts, business managers can participate in school board meetings by videoconference to minimize the need for excessive travel.
- Provide clear guidance on purchasing and end input mandates - Let’s only invest in expensive technology that actually helps children learn. No school needs a smart board. They are expensive, hard to maintain, and rarely used in a way that maximizes value. Yet, many schools have them, but not the netbooks and wi-fi that can deliver content at a fraction of the cost. Likewise, there are many rules on the books, such as the square footage required for certain functions, that are outdated and do not reflect what a school needs to be successful. We can give schools more flexibility and allow them to focus resources and space on what matters most.
- Integrate education opportunities that do not end at 2:30 or on June 20 - Studies have shown that the largest factor in gaps in education attainment is whether a student continues to have educational experiences during the summer. Likewise, with parents experiencing longer commutes, after school opportunities like FIRST Robotics and online opportunities found through platforms like the Young Writers Project can be integrated into traditional school curricula and boost academic achievement. Statewide contests like 3-D Vermont can bring history alive to young people and provide hands-on skills like 3D printing that will help them succeed in the emerging global marketplace.
- Early childhood education - The more we invest early in education, the greater the payoff in cost and achievement. We need to continue to build this capacity with qualified teachers who can give all children a great start and help them avoid the need for special education services down the road. Charging double property taxes for investments in these areas is a disincentive.
- Tackle the root causes of increasing property taxes - If we really want to reduce property taxes, we need to have comprehensive healthcare reform to reduce healthcare costs, ensure the state meets the statutory contribution to the education fund, and stop relying on property taxes to pay for roles and responsibilities that had been covered by general fund expenditures in the past. Schools may be the best place to deliver behavioral and social services, but it should not be entirely paid for out of property taxes.
Transforming our education system will not be simple. All of us will have to think differently about how we deliver education in a way that leverages our amazing commitment to community within a sustainable budget. If we jump to consolidation in many parts of the state and get it wrong, it will take generations to fix. If we do transformation right, we can deliver a high-quality education to our children and create a model for rural education in our country.