By REBECCA HOLCOMBE, Secretary of Education
Vermont has great schools, great education policy and high levels of public commitment to our children. Every school board and every town is passionate about educating its children well. However, persistent declines in enrollment, pressures of affordability, complex structures and increasing poverty all threaten our ability to support high quality education into the future.
Whether we like it or not, these threats challenge districts, including districts with proud traditions of operating schools like Peacham (45 percent fewer students than in 1997) and Cabot (35 percent fewer students than in 1997), and those with proud traditions of tuitioning like Roxbury (42 percent fewer students than in 1997). These issues challenge boards and voters to have hard conversations about how to best care for and educate their children in an equitable way in the face of continued population declines, rising tax rates and increasing expectations of schools.
Local control is no fun if the extent of local control is deciding what program to cut. The voters in Rutland Northeast (32 percent fewer students than in 1997) decided to do something about threats to quality, declining enrollments and cost pressures. Rutland Northeast was one of the first systems to move forward under Act 46, and move forward it did. Its nine districts streamlined themselves into just two districts: one K-12 operating system and one system that tuitions students at the high school level. The voters of both new districts chose for themselves whether to operate or provide tuition. Both districts achieved scale, and both districts will receive transition support in the form of temporary tax cuts. Most importantly, both districts now have moved on to the all-important work of implementing pre-kindergarten and improving opportunities for children.
Some Act 46 “movers” were focused first and foremost on maintaining a strong sense of community. Rutland South (45 percent fewer students than in 1997) wanted to keep small elementary schools in its communities, but knew it needed to make some hard choices if it was going to do so. After high levels of community involvement, a lot of conversation and some good math, the Rutland South community decided to pursue unification — with no expectations of saving money.
Unlike most other merging systems, which opted for a year of transition, RSSU decided to go full speed ahead in this coming year. With exactly the same programs and buildings and staff it approved as separate districts, the new unified district is looking at almost half a million dollars a year in reduced costs just due to consolidation. In addition, the new unified district will be able to retain the current small schools grants (as merger support grants) moving forward. Furthermore, streamlined operations are already unleashing new opportunities and the ability for leadership to focus on district priorities.
In all of the systems and districts that have grappled seriously with options over the last year, community members have had hard and focused conversations on their shared aspirations for their children and the quality of educational opportunities they are able to provide.
Orleans Central (24 percent fewer students than in 1997) wrote a study that laid out in careful detail both shared goals and existing inequities in the opportunities offered by districts within the SU. Most of the districts’ elementary students end up at the same union high school, but substantial inequities in their education leading up to high school leave students from different towns with different abilities to take advantage of high school offerings. This month, voters voted “no” on the current merger proposal. Given what the study committee has found and shared, however, it is unlikely that conversations are over in Orleans Central about how to do better for its children.
In some places where merger discussions are taking place, historical differences in school structure and tuitioning arrangements vary widely, and this necessarily makes conversations more complex. In these places, conversations are taking more time, as we would expect.
However, the context in which we are having these conversations is not changing: Vermont has a declining student population, challenges related to affordability and growing levels of poverty. The challenge our board members are facing – and embracing – is to look at their schools not through the eyes of the past, but rather, to look for opportunities to collaborate in the present in order to preserve what they care about into the future. We owe our children no less.