Vermont: Making school mergers happen

Proponents of school consolidation need to pay attention to something happening in Vermont.

A few years ago, Vermont state legislators approved Act 46, a school district consolidation law that gave schools within the state three years to consolidate voluntarily. Voters and school boards were given time to act on their own knowing that, if they failed to act, the state would act for them. Voluntarily merging made the new school districts eligible for additional aid.

Fast forward to 2018. Many districts have taken Vermont up on its offer to merge voluntarily. For residents of 45 districts in 39 Vermont towns, however, the state is taking the onus to merge those 45 districts into 11 new school districts. Not surprisingly, there will be a court battle on behalf of 30 communities planning to fight the forced mergers.

We are reminded of the most recent attempted school merger in Chautauqua County. The study showed a possible budget savings between the two school district budgets of $1.346 million for the first year of operation for a combined school district while both districts would have more courses available for students. There are savings to be had, though it is unclear how much savings are possible at the state level when factoring in merger incentive aid. That’s where the Vermont experience could be illustrative for New York lawmakers.

What’s interesting, though, is to see a state struggling with the same problems as New York — declining enrollment and increasing spending on schools — have a proactive plan. Compare that with New York’s plan of throwing more and more state aid at school districts and then bragging about how much the governor and state Legislature have increased state aid while doing nothing to actually deal with state’s skyrocketing education spending and lack of results.

The Vermont plan isn’t perfect. There are people upset that their small school is going away. The state is the bad guy. We’re sure some lawmakers have paid a price for that. But give Vermont credit for coming up with some sort of solution rather than sitting on its collective hands doing nothing.