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H.883 is a costly step in the wrong direction

By Heidi Spear

Massive school governance consolidation without cost benefit analysis or clearly stated goals for expanded opportunities would be a costly step in the wrong direction.

Over the past 15 years, education spending in Vermont has ballooned to the point that we are now spending $1.5 billion and consuming 47 percent of all state and local revenues. Our leadership is now debating raising more revenues through a greater tax burden or whittling away crucial dollars for our most vulnerable citizens, while they continue to turn their backs on the responsibility to reform the beast of their own making. For some reason, completely beyond, well, reason, our executive and legislative leadership remains unconvinced that there is an urgent problem with education funding in Vermont. Next year, they say.

Instead of allocating real energy to fixing this problem, Shap and friends are fixated on a plan for massive school governance consolidation. Somehow, perhaps thanks to the full-time lobbying of the Vermont Superintendents Association, reducing independent oversight of school budgets by 50 percent to upwards of 90 percent and consolidating power in the hands of superintendents has gotten on the front burner.

Now, I am not one who thinks we must and should live or die by our current governance models, those defined in the distant past. However, as a means to reduce our spending, increase accountability, or improve opportunities, H.883, a plan with zero clarity about what opportunities we will expand to compel our effort, no design or metrics for efficiencies to inform our alignment, and no cost benefit analysis to prioritize our investments, is worse than an empty gesture. This is another cart-before-the-horse cram down with deadlines but no substance. It isn't enough to have grand ideals and high hopes. As anyone with actual business experience can tell you, success depends upon execution.

As evidenced by the assembly of K-12 districts whose budgets failed this year, consolidated budgets and governance doesn't necessarily translate to lower costs, better outcomes, or sufficient transparency or accountability. There is a tremendously high-level leap of faith that reducing the number of districts from 270 to 45 to 55 would automatically translate to better things for kids, taxpayers, or for the communities they hail from. First off, we don't even agree on what expanded opportunities are a priority – what excellent education looks and feels like. And, truly, must we?

Experts in the field of education have stated repeatedly that a consolidation plan should not be implemented with any expectation of considerable cost savings, but legislators seem to view them as inevitable. Since when is efficiency just inevitable when you grow a bigger organization? When you undermine accountability for the dollars spent you certainly won't help this efficiency come to pass. H.883 includes zero provisions or guidance to facilitate let alone ensure cost reduction. Despite this fact, for those who follow this prescription for consolidation on the jiffy, you can get grants of $20k and $50k – all at the discretion of the central powers that be. You could spin your wheels entirely, you could spend more on higher labor contracts and cut no staff at all, but we would have invested in you and your totally unrealized potential. The bill raids the Special Fund of $4 million for these purposes. This plan, passed unanimously by the House Education Committee, jettisons fiscal accountability by doling out free money (grants don't count in the education spending that factors into the tax formula) on the basis of nothing more than just falling in line.

What is certain, regardless of the downstream potential of some efficiency gain, is that a massive consolidation effort will drive costs up, not down, for the foreseeable future. There are very real barriers to the proposed consolidation – not just lack of community buy-in. This effort would require investments in infrastructure and staffing. Resources that could be focused on identifying shared resources and purchasing efficiencies or facilitating right sizing efforts to contain actual spending would instead be heavily occupied with accounting systems migrations and changing all employment contracts. Labor costs would settle up, not down, as contracts get unified. Central office staff would be tasked with change management, stewarding the bloody, divisive process of consolidating the budgets and governing boards themselves, instead of remaining focused on such things as, um, educating students. The AOE offered preliminary H.883 cost estimates of $11 million, exclusive of higher costs at the agency to guide and oversee the consolidation.

Further, we should be abundantly clear and give ample consideration to the fact that eliminating town school districts would be a game changer in Vermont. This move would disenfranchise a great many involved parents and community members in a process that more, not fewer, of us should be involved in. Town Meeting as most of us know it would be a thing of the past as town presentations and reviews of local school budgets would be replaced with Australian ballots for a single, much larger budget that crosses voting districts.

While centralization of control and oversight might seem appealing to some, I have to question the sanity of this move with current state-level performance. The Agency of Education employs 155 people and spends a budget of over $24 million, up 10 percent from FY13. This spending level is equal to almost $90,000 per current district (not all of them operating schools) or $400,000 for each of our current supervisory unions and supervisory districts. I am not sure they have much to teach us about efficiency.

It appears it will take the engagement of our citizenry to stop our legislators from sidestepping key concerns of voters, and ignoring basic management best practices while mandating sweeping change. Absent our voices, we will be embarking on another costly venture spending precious few resources well beyond regional norms and our own means. If you also take issue with this legislation, please consider signing the petition to oppose H.883 at http://www.credomobilize.com/petitions/defend-local-education-in-vermont.

Heidi Spear is chair of the Fayston School Board.

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