Lawmakers Encourage School Districts To Merge

09/11/12 5:50PM By Steve Zind

Lawmakers hope a new approach to getting more Vermont school districts to merge will help augment an earlier effort to cut down on the number of school boards. 

Education officials argue mergers would result in better governance, more student opportunity and possible cost savings.

Two years ago, Act 153 offered school districts a number of incentives to merge into a single RED or Regional Education District. 

Under the plan one regional school board would take the place of local town boards.  To create a regional district, voters in every town in the district had to approve. 

So far, though, that's happened only once and voters in some towns have expressed concern that mergers represent a further loss of local control.

This year, the legislature passed Act 156, which provides more flexibility by creating the opportunity for some towns in a supervisory union to create their own single district even if others decide not to join.   

House Education Committee chair Johannah Donovan said Burlington is a good example of how a large single district can still be responsive to very localized concerns.

"Some of the small districts have one superintendent who has to deal with eight boards," Donovan said.  "They maybe govern the education of 1200 students.  I come from Burlington.  We have one superintendent, we have one board and we have 4,000 students.  I think there is still a sense of community.  We have very distinct neighborhoods and we have distinct neighborhood schools."

One of the concerns raised in some towns is that the loss of the local school board might lead to closing smaller schools. 

Rutland Senator Kevin Mullin, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, says he doesn't support the elimination of local school boards, but he says that may not prevent some schools from closing in light of declining enrollment.

"The main intent is not to force school consolidation, but that could be a natural byproduct if we continue with the demographic numbers that we're seeing," Mullin said. "We can't continue to operate a system that had 15 percent more students just a decade and a half ago and not think that a change has to occur."

Towns in two Vermont supervisory unions will hold votes in November on whether to merge school districts. 

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