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School board petition

04/09/07 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(HOST) Vermont school board members have taken on a new role during this legislative session. They've even been organizing on the Internet. Commentator Allen Gilbert offers an inside look.

(GILBERT) Recently, key leaders in the Vermont House strategized what to do about education finance reform. Meanwhile, school board members across the state were meeting on the Web.

The e-meeting was on a Web site that allows folks to gather names on petitions urging coordinated action. The issue was whether Vermont legislators really had a good grasp of school finance issues, and of what's driving school costs. The request by the petitioners was to go slow. Before major changes are made - penalties levied, sanctions imposed - study the problems and understand all the moving pieces, the petition urged.

I'm a school board member with a long interest in school finance issues. I signed the petition because I share this concern. I've been following changes proposed in bills before both the House and Senate. The changes deal with something that for most people is a rather arcane portion of the school funding formula - the "weighting" of pupils.

Weighting is a way of directing more resources to areas where there's agreement that extra resources are needed: students learning English, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and students at high schools. Discussions around stiffer penalties for high-spending districts worried legislators. They were concerned because districts in towns that they represented were going to get dinged. Out came the spreadsheets. They showed which towns would suffer. And out came the ideas how to spare some of the towns from the penalties. The ideas weren't based on thoughtful reasons about why maybe certain schools were - or weren't - high spenders. Instead, the ideas were based on current spending patterns.

In other words, legislators just accepted present reality, and said, that's how we'll measure how much schools should be spending. They shied away from developing a rational basis for suggesting what an appropriate amount might be.

It's unusual for school board members to get directly involved in state politics. Local issues provide plenty to do. So when board members band together and start to kick up a statewide ruckus, legislators know they should listen. That's what happened at a public hearing called by the House Education and House Ways and Means committees several weeks ago. The state commissioner of education wanted more authority to consolidate school districts. School board members wanted evidence that consolidation would lead to savings or to more opportunities for kids. No such evidence could be provided. Legislators backed away from the idea.

The jury on school finance reform will be out for several more weeks as the Senate takes up bills that it's developed. Then House and Senate bills will have to be reconciled in conference committees. This will drag on until May or June.

It's good to see local school board members speak up on these issues. Their petition asks that a "comprehensive, objective analysis of costs and cost drivers" be done. Without such an analysis, "efforts to 'fix' things amount to a 'shot in the dark' that may relieve some specific symptoms but likely not address root issues and have unintended and undesirable consequences."

I hope that legislators - and the governor - will ultimately listen to that message.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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