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02/14/07 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(HOST) Discussion over school district consolidation has heated up. But commentator Allen Gilbert thinks that not all the facts are in yet.

(GILBERT) The "conversation" that state officials hoped to start about school district consolidation has taken off. Legislators are studying the issue, and numerous news articles and op-eds have appeared.

However, there's a good deal of confusion around the conversation.

"School consolidation" is a polite term for what could be wrenching changes for Vermont's 251 cities and towns, and their students. That may not be a bad thing. Significant new learning opportunities for children could result. And there might be savings for taxpayers. Indeed, these two criteria -- Does it help kids? Does it save money? - they should be criteria for any changes.

The problem is that, so far, some of the tougher questions behind what seem like good ideas aren't being asked. And assumptions are being made without the information to back them up.

Take the term "district consolidation." It's portrayed as an effort to collapse the number of school boards from nearly three hundred to about seventy. Yet, such downsizing in and of itself doesn't necessarily result in helping kids or saving money.

In testimony last week before a legislative committee, it was pointed out that Montpelier has its own school district, and the five towns around it have theirs. School buses from outlying towns literally pass by the city high school to get to the five towns' own high school. It's a crazy system. But collapsing multiple district boards into single supervisory union boards won't address this problem. That's because Montpelier and the five towns make up different supervisory unions, and they would remain different supervisory unions even under the state's consolidation plan. Consolidation, in this case, could only come about through an affirmative vote by the residents of the five towns and the city.

Education Commissioner Richard Cate stated recently that two things drive school costs -- class size and health care costs. School expenses are actually a bit more complicated than that. Special education costs, for example, currently eat up sixteen percent of my town's school budget. That's got nothing to do with class size or employees' health care costs.

A big problem with getting schools to run more efficiently is that we're lacking key data. The Education Department is unable to provide per-pupil costs of individual schools -- an important measure of any school's efficiency. Figures are available for costs at all schools in a district, but not for each one of the schools. It's like trying to figure out your car's gas mileage without an odometer.

We all have direct control over our local school budgets at town meeting. If school costs are galloping, they can be reined in at the polls. We have no such control over other budgets, such as health care, highways, and military spending.

Good decisions about public issues such as school governance and funding can only be made with sound information and straight talk. District downsizing might be an excellent idea. But before it's mandated for all districts, why not try it in one and see how it works? That way, we'll learn the things that really will help kids and benefit taxpayers.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He's been on school boards for a dozen years.

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