Vermont House gives preliminary approval to mandatory school district mergers

The Vermont House on Wednesday endorsed a bill that would require many school districts in the state to merge with their neighbors, in hopes of trimming costs and expanding the range of class offerings available to students.

The bill advanced on an 88-55 roll call vote. It is up for final approval on Thursday before moving to the Senate. It says districts should have a minimum of 1,100 students and serve students from preschool through grade 12. It is expected to reduce the number of school districts, which now would be called "integrated education systems," from nearly 300 to 50 or 60.

While the bill's provisions are mandatory, the state Board of Education could issue exemptions to districts pleading special circumstances.

Backers pointed to an analysis from the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office indicating the changes could save the state between $32 million and $54 million a year in school costs. They also said they wanted to address a situation in which some Vermont schools are so tiny they have trouble mustering the staff and students for a third foreign language or a calculus class.

Similar legislation passed the House last year but died in the Senate.

Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, the chairman of the House Education Committee, said many regions around the state had evolved into groups of five or so towns, with one serving as the center of commerce and social life. "Isn't it time our schools caught up with that?" he asked.

Some of the debate Wednesday focused on whether inter-district mergers should be voluntary, rather than mandatory. Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, introduced an unsuccessful amendment to make them voluntary.

She asked how Vermont would feel if Congress issued a similar edict: "You guys are really small. ... We think you should merge" with a neighboring state.

Sharpe replied that incentives for voluntary consolidation had not worked.

"A voluntary process might work out in 100 years, but frankly we don't have 100 years. The crisis is now," he said.

Many lawmakers said rising school costs and property taxes were the top issues on voters' minds during last year's elections.

Minority Republicans said the bill did not do enough to get costs under control.

Rep. Heidi Sherman, R-Stowe, lamented that her efforts to bring about comprehensive reform had failed.

"Too many here did not believe the system was completely unsustainable, did not believe the system was broken, did not believe it needed real reform," she said.

The bill sought to address two big complaints about Vermont's current system for determining how much property owners pay: the complexity of the system and sharply rising tax bills.

It sets new caps on district spending growth, but despite provisions aimed at making tax calculations simpler, not all complexity would be lost. The bill does not touch the state's "common level of appraisal" system, in which a division of state government makes adjustments when cities and towns don't keep up with changes in property values.

The bill also includes a provision exempting districts that close schools after mergers from the longstanding requirement that they refund to the state some of the construction aid they got to build the now-closing school.

That drew a complaint from Rep. Christopher Pearson, a Burlington Progressive, that the Legislature had not studied how much money the state might lose by forgoing those school construction repayments.