Act 46: What's the advantage to merging districts?
Somehow lost in the discussion of Act 46 is the question of what are the real benefits of district mergers and what are the costs? The main arguments for merging are the short term incentives given from the state, as expressed by the Superintendent of Washington West Supervisory Union, "Even though many may have concerns about consolidation, the tax incentives offered appear to be too great to ignore."
Secretary of Education Holcombe has stated these incentives are merely offsets to cover the cost of merging. And who will pay for all these "offsets"? With no funding mechanism in Act 46, the cost of merging and all its "incentives" will fall on all of us taxpayers.
The problem Act 46 was intended to address was decreasing student numbers in Vermont and the related high cost per pupil cost of education. It is unclear how merging districts would address decreasing enrollment, unless by closing schools, which, we have been assured, is not the intent of merging. So what long-term savings does consolidation offer? Certainly with fewer districts superintendents will have fewer board meetings, we will save some of the tiny stipends board members receive, and having only one audit for a merged district may be less costly than audits for several smaller districts. Merging may simplify some tasks for central administration, but the real savings from merging are likely to be a rounding error compared to overall school budgets. Even the best case scenario celebrated by state officials about the first merger in Essex-Westford touted a $200,000 annual savings on a budget of over $54 million dollars — barely one-third of 1 percent.
The other benefits promoted by merger proponents are greater equity and expanded educational opportunities. It is hard to see how expanded opportunities could possibly cost less than more narrow offerings. And equity, which is being defined as offering similar programs in different schools within a district, would entail either adding programs that other schools have (and increasing costs) or cutting programs a school has that offer some "advantage" other schools don't have (thereby narrowing opportunities). In WNESU, for example, will Westminster have to get rid of its highly praised garden program? Or will all the other schools in the district have to plow up a garden to be "equitable"?
But there are tremendous costs in centralizing even more power in the superintendent's office and reducing the power of parents, teachers, and principals to determine what is best for the children in your community school. Sharing a Spanish teacher with a neighboring school seems nice enough, but what happens when a superintendent of the merged districts decides the best reading teacher from one school is needed to shore up the reading program at another district school. How does a principal develop a high functioning team when individual teachers can be assigned by the central office? What happens to collegial relations and connections with students and families?
What other decisions will be made by the central office that may simplify management for administrators but lower quality for students? For example, will schools such as Putney or Westminster, which have developed superb farm to table food programs, have to become part of the new district-wide, corporate food service? Will Jamaica be able to develop as much enthusiasm for the state spelling bee as Newfane has had for years? Will programs with the same title in each school be of the same quality?
The list of concerns with merging go on: With merged districts, our local towns lose ownership of school property. Participation at town meetings will drop as the school budget is voted on Australian ballot. Budget oversight will drop with a merged budget too complex and far removed for local citizens.
The quality of student learning has much more to do with the quality of educators than the name of programs in a school. One school can put on great plays because there is a theater oriented teacher with vision and passion. Another school will be more committed to community service, or nature based learning, or global connections. There have been few mandates from state or federal authorities that have thrilled local school officials. I don't think having more mandates from a central office in a merged district are likely to be any more welcome in individual schools. Top down edicts have rarely benefitted students or teachers. Removing authority from principals, teachers, and parents will not improve educational quality nor is it likely to lower educational costs.
The biggest concern is that Act 46 is a one-size-fits-all approach with little existing evidence of positive results. The state is putting all its eggs in this one basket that has costs we can identify and the inevitable unintended consequences that are harder to foresee. Let's hope our political leaders can step back from this ill advised gamble and let our local communities determine how best to provide quality education for our children in the most cost effective manner.
Rick Gordon is the chairman of the Westminster School Board. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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