House gives preliminary approval to school district merger bill

MONTPELIER — House lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a bill that would merge the state’s school districts and potentially cap education spending.

By a vote that was not divided by party lines so much by the size of the towns and cities they represent, House members Wednesday approved a bill that would overhaul school governance in the state by a vote of 88 to 55.

“This bill will provide for valuable improvements to education for our students and do it within a cost structure affordable to Vermont residents,” said Rep. David Sharpe, D- Bristol, who chairs the House Education Committee.

The bill, which has been in the works since January and which follows a district merger bill that received House approval last session before dying in the Senate, calls for the merger of the state’s nearly 300 school districts into districts that provide Pre-K-12 education with at least 1,100 students by the year 2019.

The bill would compel districts to conduct studies on the feasibility of merging with their neighbors — or any other district — and present merger plans to voters for approval by 2017. Following voter approval, the merger plan would be presented to the State Board of Education for final approval.

Districts that do not act by 2017 would have their merger plans made for them by the Agency of Education.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, offered an amendment to the bill that would have removed the mandatory district consolidation component of the bill.

“I don’t think school districts that are performing satisfactorily in the eyes of a community should be forced to reorganize,” Browning said, expressing opposition to the idea that merger plans would be subject to the approval of the unelected members of the State Board of Education.

“How would Vermont feel if Congress in DC said to Rhode Island and Vermont, ‘You know, your states are small. You need to merge’?” Browning said.

Sharpe noted that Act 153 of 2010 provides financial incentives for districts to merge voluntarily, and in the intervening five years, very few districts have actually merged.

“The voluntary process might work in 100 years, but we don’t have 100 years,” Sharpe said.

Browning’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 80 to 62.

House lawmakers did approve an amendment offered by Rep. Patricia Komline, R-Dorset, to require any future bills dealing with education that cost money to be paid for with a transfer from the General Fund to the Education Fund.

The amendment, which received broad support by a vote of 129 to 19, would not apply to expenses incurred from mandates within the bill itself.

Lawmakers also approved an amendment from Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, that would implement a school district spending cap if districts do not curb their spending increases voluntarily.

Under the Buxton amendment, if the average increase of school budgets in the state exceeds 2.95 percent in 2016 — the average rate of growth for school budgets approved at town meeting in March — then districts would face a spending cap of 2 percent the following year.

As she did for most of the day, Browning expressed opposition to the idea of a spending cap, saying that requiring school boards to cap their budgets while lawmakers do not cap their own spending smacks of hypocrisy.

“This is, ‘Do as we say, not as we do,’” Browning said.

The bill is expected come before the House for final approval Thursday. But, even if approved, the bill will be sent to the Senate Rules Committee, where last year’s school district merger bill languished until the end of the session.

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