The Twin Valley vote was more or less pro forma, as school officials in Wilmington and Whitingham had already taken care of most of the heavy lifting for the merger. The vote on Wednesday just formalized the merger under Act 46.
Southern Valley voters, however, were a little more tenuous in their support of the plan. Halifax overwhelmingly passed the plan, while in Readsboro it cleared by only 10 votes. In Stamford, the plan was soundly defeated, in large part because the town is also exploring options to merge with a Massachusetts school district just across the border. But, it only takes two to tango, and the new district will form in a year, unless there is a challenge to Wednesday’s vote.
With a number of local district mergers approved , those who believe Act 46 is the best solution for keeping the state’s public school system viable should be pleased. It appears that, overall, the plan to consolidate governance is working. But then again, given the law essentially requires school districts to do so, it should be working.
But there have been some bumps along the way. Not every Act 46 plan has been accepted. On Tuesday, voters in Ludlow rejected a plan that would have closed Black River High School and sent Mount Holly and Ludlow students to Mill River High School. Loss of community and distance were two of the many reasons cited by those who opposed the plan. Closer to home, plans for consolidation in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union have ground to a halt, as the district sorts out what to do with Vernon’s exit from the current Brattleboro High School union. It took an act of the Legislature to allow Vernon to leave the union, and now the waiting game is on while Vernon decides what to do.
Looking at Act 46 from above, there is no doubt the governance consolidation component is being fulfilled. Bigger districts across wider geographic areas of the state are being realized. But we wonder if the other main component of the 2015 law, controlling school costs, will really ever play out in a meaningful way for Vermont taxpayers. Act 46, while paying lip service to creating schools “at a price Vermonters value,” really doesn’t get to the core of cost containment.
The real monetary problems do not lie in geography. The real problems are demography, coupled with the way the state accounts for school spending. The demographics don’t show a positive trend for Vermont. Student populations have been declining for more than two decades, which mirrors national trends. Those declines are amplified in rural areas, where the loss of student population is more pronounced.
That student drain, coupled with the way the state accounts for school spending, creates a way of looking at school spending that addresses expenses in an arbitrary, rather than bottom line, way. The preferred method in Vermont to account for whether a school is cost effective or not is per-pupil averages, which divides the number of students in a school into the dollars it takes to run that school. While seemingly simple and straightforward, that formula doesn’t take into account what small schools really need to provide a good education. A classroom of 10 students costs about the same as a classroom of 20, yet the per-pupil cost would be double in this simple example. On the contrary, a larger school district with a classroom that grew from 15 students to 20 would see their per-pupil costs decrease, even while their expenses remained relatively flat.
There has been talk in some legislative circles about weighted averaging when it comes to accounting for school spending. In that concept, smaller school districts would have their expenses accounted for differently. In education terms, it would be similar to grading on a curve. We think that would be a step in the right direction.
Vermont can continue to squeeze districts together, spreading those per-pupil averages over greater distances in an effort to bring down the per-pupil costs for a district. But until the underlying issues of declining populations and the current accounting methods are dealt with, Vermont will continue to have issues justifying the cost of its schools, mergers or not.
Act 46 may provide a light at the end of the tunnel. We just hope there isn’t a freight train on those tracks, heading in the wrong direction.