MONTPELIER — The Agency of Education does not support portions of a bill that seeks to consolidate the state’s school districts.
The House Ways and Means Committee took testimony Tuesday afternoon from Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe on a bill that seeks to create school districts with at least 1,100 students that offer pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education by the year 2020.
Holcombe, who says studies show the optimal size for a school district is 1,500 students, is a supporter of creating larger districts, with the goals of reducing costs through efficiency and improving student access to educational opportunities by sharing staff across a larger district.
“You are asking people to think of their communities as bigger than their town borders,” Holcombe told the committee. “The bill encourages districts to sit down and look around locally and see who you might want to partner with.”
The 51-page bill includes tax incentives to encourage districts to consolidate on their own, while giving authority to the Agency of Education to consolidate districts that do not do so. But Holcombe said the final authority to consolidate districts that are unwilling or unable to do so on their own should rest elsewhere.
“The authority to assign districts should not rest with one person,” said Holcombe, who suggested the authority should be given to the State Board of Education or another body and should include an appeal process.
The bill also contains a provision to cap the annual increase in education spending for a district at 2 percent. Any budget that comes in with an increase higher than 2 percent would be considered a failed budget.
Holcombe noted that the average increase among education budgets up for vote at town meetings last week was 2.89 percent. Of the 255 budgets, only 106 would have made it under the cap, while 149 would have been considered failed before they ever went to a vote of the people.
Holcombe said the bill would also prevent a school district from seeking a short-term line of credit, even in the event of emergency or disaster.
“If something happens in the middle of the year, a roof collapses or they have a flood in the basement, they need the discretion to be able to address those issues,” she told the lawmakers.
Holcombe said her agency would not support a provision in the bill that would require the agency to review and evaluate the laws surrounding collective bargaining agreements between teachers and school districts.
“Neither the secretary nor any staff at the agency is involved with or equipped to evaluate collective bargaining laws,” said Holcombe in written testimony submitted to the committee. “This is not an aspect of school operations that falls under the purview of the agency, and would be better suited to be dealt with by labor law experts, not education experts. This is an employment issue.”
The bill also proposes to restrict — with exceptions — tuition payments to schools outside Vermont, which would reduce out-of-state tuition payments from $5.7 million to $1.7 million.
Holcombe called the issue a red herring, saying Vermont benefits from receiving students from other states and that such a move might invite retaliatory action from those states, which might decide not to tuition their students to schools in Vermont.