Local lawmakers split on forced school mergers


BRATTLEBORO -- Rep. Tristan Toleno sees a big problem in Vermont's educational system -- "deficits in opportunity" from school to school, with some students having less access to classes and services than others.

But the Brattleboro Democrat on Wednesday nonetheless cast a vote against a bill that would enact sweeping change in the state's educational governance by drastically reducing the number of school boards and increasing the size of school districts.

One reason behind that vote was a common question cited by opponents of the bill: Do bigger districts necessarily mean better districts?

"As I have weighed whether or not I could support the bill, I had to weigh whether the mechanism it uses to create change is likely to succeed. I am not convinced," Toleno said. "I believe that there is an assumption made that may or may not come to pass -- namely, that simply creating a larger-scale system will lead to more equity and more opportunity," he said. "Missing is a baseline standard that will clarify what expectations a newly expanded district must meet."

The controversial legislation (H.883) would consolidate the number of school districts from 270 to as few as 45. It sets up an initial, six-year process during which districts could voluntarily merge; an appointed "design team" would guide the restructuring work, and there would be more public input on district consolidation.

With just one week left in the session, the bill appears to be dead on arrival in the Senate. In fact, even as the House voted, the Senate Education Committee reportedly was approving a much different plan that does not merge districts but creates more "efficiencies" in supervisory unions.

Nonetheless, the consolidation bill spurred hours of debate in the House before members gave final approval on Wednesday with a 76-60 vote. The breakdown from Windham County's 12 representatives was two in favor, six against and four absent.

The positive votes came from Reps. David Deen, D-Westminster, and Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro. Stuart is a member of the House Education Committee and consistently has voiced strong support for the bill.

"Despite our state's high marks in education -- we enjoy one of the nation's highest graduation rates, and our students perform exceedingly well on many key tests -- as a state, we are failing to deliver equal learning opportunities to every Vermonter, particularly children in rural areas and those living in poverty," Stuart said.

She said lawmakers heard from several hundred Vermonters from all walks of life -- and from both big and small towns -- while shaping the legislation. About three-quarters of those who testified supported the bill, Stuart said.

"Many House members came to the realization that something must be done to equalize the education playing field in our state while holding the line on costs," Stuart said. "They realized that it is not right that all children in Vermont do not benefit from learning enrichment including foreign languages, art, AP classes and music."

She argues that Vermont must embrace change.

"There is no silver bullet to solve the education challenges our state faces," Stuart said. "But this bill has kicked off a vigorous conversation regarding what I deem to be our most important responsibility as a state and as a society -- educating our children."

Joining Toleno in voting against the bill were Reps. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro; Tim Goodwin; I-Weston; Mike Hebert, R-Vernon; Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington; and John Moran, D-Wardsboro.

Absent were Reps. Dick Marek, D-Newfane; Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney; Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham; and Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham.

Mrowicki previously said he was unsatisfied with the education-governance bill. But after what he called the House's "tough" vote on Wednesday, Mrowicki said he was pleased that lawmakers included a lengthy review and solicitation of more public opinion.

"I could not vote for this bill but am glad a longer, six-year process with input from across the state was added -- before any actions can be taken," he said.

Other local lawmakers remained staunchly opposed to the bill.

"The education consolidation and the phasing out of small-schools grants are a great disservice to our towns and our schools," Moran said.

"Until lawmakers understand the importance of community involvement in educational decision-making, our children will not be well-served," Moran added. "What the Legislature is failing to do this year, I believe, will fuel a call for real reform in our next legislative biennium -- reform that will start at the local level, and not top-down from Montpelier."

Some say local leadership must remain a key part of the state's educational system.

After voting against the House bill, Hebert, who also is chairman of the Vernon Town School Board, declared that "the closer we keep our schools and their governance to our communities, the better we serve our students."

Goodwin said the House vote was "not partisan-political; but rather, rural versus more heavily populated."

"Weston and Londonderry have less reason to be concerned about it than many other towns, due to the Mountain Towns RED (regional education district)," he said. "Many small school districts have a concern over loss of local control and the possible loss of schools as community entities. It would eliminate supervisory unions, which would be replaced by ‘expanded prekindergarten-grade 12 school districts.'"

The allowance for more public input into that process, though representing a "softening" of the bill, was not enough to earn support from many lawmakers -- including Toleno.

"Even with the soft edges, there can be no confusion; this is an imposition from Montpelier of dramatic change, with many of the details left for later in the process," Toleno said. "I do not think that waiting one year to allow time for us to follow through on a statewide engagement process and do more work within this building would be lost time, or prevent us from taking courageous steps towards systemwide change."

In other legislative business related to Windham County and its lawmakers:

-- The House approved a bill (S.239) providing for greater state regulation over toxic chemicals, and Deen dubbed it "landmark" legislation.

"If it becomes law, it will require that manufacturers that use chemicals that can harm children must list them with the Commissioner of Health, who will publish them on the Department of Health website so the public can see the chemicals and the products that contain those chemicals," Deen said. "The bill allows the Commissioner of Health to further regulate or ban the worst of the worst chemicals."

Deen said legislators "were forced to take state action because of a lack of action at the federal level."

"When we looked at this issue five years ago, we deferred to the federal government at the request of industry," he said. "The federal government did nothing, and the only idea they are looking at now is to pre-empt the states from taking action or rescinding those actions states have taken already."

Mrowicki, a supporter of the bill, said "the choice for me was clear -- protect chemical companies or protect children. I voted to protect our children."

-- The House took on another weighty topic toward the end of the week, approving a bill that would make it easier for hospitals to administer medication to mental-health patients against their will.

Toleno said the bill strikes "a careful balance between the need of individual citizens to have control over their bodies and minds, and the needs of the state to act when this individual freedom presents risks to the public."

"Protecting from misuse of this power is among the most critical functions of careful lawmaking, and I believe we have done a good job of addressing problems within our system of care and judiciary processes," he added.

-- The House overwhelmingly approved legislation aimed at "bias-free policing." In order to gauge the prevalence of profiling and the effectiveness of anti-bias training, it requires officers statewide to collect data on the race of those they pull over.

Some questioned the need for such policies, but Burke said the vote came "amid very powerful debate, with personal stories about a couple of people who had been detained by police because of their color."

-- As the 2014 legislative session winds down, Windham County Sen. Jeanette White said lawmakers "are spending floor time trying to clear the calendar."

White noted that the Senate passed the state's fiscal 2015 budget, and there is "something in there for everyone to hate and love."

"There have been a lot of challenges on the floor, accusing us of favoring the wealthy at the expense of the poor," White said. "And some have tried to do tax reform on the floor rather than through the thoughtful deliberations of the committee structure. I do think we are making good decisions -- not all of them, but it is never as simple and clear as some would like to portray."

-- Goodwin, who represents the Windham-Bennington-Windsor District, said he supports efforts by Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, to pry loose information about how Gov. Peter Shumlin would pay for the state's planned universal health-care system.

Browning has filed suit, claiming the documents are public record. But Shumlin has said the financing plan is not yet ready for public consumption.

"It very much appears to me that the governor wishes not to disclose the plan, or plans, for financing a single-payer health plan before November elections," Goodwin said. "My guess is that a voice vote would disclose that Cynthia Browning is not the only Democrat who feels that the governor ought to disclose his plan, or plans, and give the voters a chance to express their views in November."

Mike Faher is the political beat writer at the Reformer. He can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275. Follow him on Twitter @MikeReformer.


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