Vermont Education System Faces Major Overhuall

As student enrollment and public school funding both decrease in multiple regions around Vermont, consolidation seems to be the best solution available — and the prospect of school district consolidation is becoming ever more imminent for countless school districts across the state.

On January 23rd, the Vermont Association of School Business Officials held a meeting to discuss the possibility of merging the state’s smaller school districts (mostly located in rural areas) in order to save the maximum amount of taxpayer dollars.

Richard C. Pembroke Jr., chief financial officer (CFO) for the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, and Grant Geisler, CFO for the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union, both agreed on Friday that school district consolidation would ameliorate the state’s “phantom student” problem. As the experts behind financial risk management and record-keeping for multiple schools underneath the two supervisory unions, Pembroke and Geisler have both agreed that taxpayers face an unfair burden when it comes to covering the rising costs of education.

This is the problem at the heart of the “phantom student” issue, which determines how much of the state’s taxes go into certain school districts by taking a two-year average of student population, and factoring in other issues that would impact finances, such as the number of students with a disability and the number of students living in poverty.

The problem now, however, is that taxpayers have begun paying for “students” who don’t really exist; the formula for determining school district funding, while still somewhat effective, doesn’t adequately take into account the significant decrease (about 20% in the past few years) in student enrollment.

As Geisler states, the funding formula could be more effective — but that the state needs to restructure its educational system and consolidate some of the 270 school districts by imposing a minimum class size. This restructuring, according to Geisler, could save Vermont “tens of millions a year.”

The discussion about school district consolidation comes just a few days after the Vermont Board of Education approved the consolidation of two supervisory unions (Windsor Northwest and Orange-Windsor) affecting 10 school districts in south-central Vermont. Although savings are likely to vary between school districts, one local news source states that the newly consolidated union expects “an immediate savings from personnel, office space, and software in the area of $314,200.”

Those ten schools in the Essex, Essex Junction, and Westford communities had considered consolidating back in 2007, but the decision to merge was ultimately scrapped. However, local news reports state that a decision regarding consolidation could be made as early as November 2015 — especially if the recent supervisory union consolidation proves to be an effective way of lessening the burden of increasing education costs.

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