Vt. school merger law is worth watching

Proponents and opponents of school consolidation should pay attention to what’s happening right now in Vermont.

A few years ago, Vermont state legislators approved Act 46, a school district consolidation law that gave schools within the state three years to consolidate voluntarily. Voters and school boards were given time to act on their own, knowing that, if they failed to act, the state would act for them. Voluntarily merging made the new school districts eligible for additional aid.

Fast-forward to 2018.

Many districts have taken Vermont up on its offer to merge voluntarily. For residents of 45 districts in 39 Vermont towns, however, the state is taking the onus to merge those 45 districts into 11 new school districts. Not surprisingly, there will be a court battle on behalf of 30 communities planning to fight the forced mergers.

Vermont officials passed Act 46 on the rationale that closing smaller school districts would save money and improve the quality of education. At the time, Vermont was spending roughly $18,769 per pupil on education, more than all but three states, according to the Hechinger Report. The actual dollar figure per pupil, if lower after a merger, doesn’t actually mean taxpayers are paying for less education. It means that, because of the merger, there would be simply fewer expenses from school operations and less payroll due to merger teaching and administrative positions — all of which goes into the equation determining the amount per pupil. The level of education would still be high quality, especially with technological advances in the tools available and used in a child’s education today.

We are reminded of the merger voters recently approved for the Elizabethtown-Lewis and Westport school districts. A study showed it would stabilize tax increases and make more courses available for students. There are savings to be had, though it is unclear how much savings are possible at the state level when factoring in merger incentive aid. That’s where the Vermont experience could be illustrative for New York lawmakers. New York legislators can see whether or not a statewide policy that results in substantially fewer school districts saves substantial state money on top of the possible local savings and if state aid is indeed distributed more equitably when there are fewer school districts in existence.

It is interesting, though, to see a state struggling with the same problems as New York — declining enrollment and increasing spending on schools — have a proactive plan. Compare that with New York’s plan of throwing more and more state aid at school districts and then bragging about how much the governor and state legislature have increased state aid, while doing nothing to actually deal with state’s skyrocketing education spending and lack of results.

The Vermont plan isn’t perfect. There are many people upset that their small schools are going away. The state is the bad guy. We’re sure some lawmakers have paid a price for that. But give Vermont credit for coming up with some sort of solution rather than sitting on its collective hands, doing nothing.