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By Heidi Spear, Rob Rosen and Eva Frankel
The Agency of Education (AOE) has designed a plan to dissolve Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union that involves shifting 100 percent of the administrative burden from two of Windsor's schools to Washington West Supervisory Union, despite the fact that fewer than 5 percent of their students get educated in our district. With this transfer of administrative responsibility to our supervisory union, we are certain our costs will go up far in excess of the AOE projections and that our taxpayers and our school administrators will be left to foot the bill and feel the pain. The State Board of Education (BOE) votes this week on this plan and the straw vote went heavily against our interests, despite universal opposition by our elected officials and our administrative staff.
Sometimes parents resort to such declarations as "because we say so," when we lack the logic, the ability to persuade, or the patience to handle things optimally. Now it seems that the Board of Education is determined to pull that same line on the heavily burdened taxpayers in Washington West and all of us taxpayers should be none too happy about it. We need to send a clear message that consolidation plans need to deliver actual savings, not "despite all testimony and experience" savings, and that forced consolidations that merely shift expenses and dilute accountability will not fly in our state.
Clearly, the Legislature, the Agency of Education and the State Board of Education have decided consolidation will stem the tide of rising education costs in Vermont. Through Act 156 and in the stated goals of the SBE, this means has become the goal in itself. Now Washington West is about to pay a steep price for their agenda taking precedent over due consideration and the rational pursuit of efficiencies as part of an unprecedented forced consolidation. This action is coming to pass through a boundary change designed by the AOE and pending approval by the SBE next week, despite unanimous opposition by Washington West elected officials and voters having had zero chance to weigh in on the consolidation.
We can't say if the ill-fated supervisory union should fold into another or not, but what we can say is that it shouldn't be done such that costs are shifted to our taxpayers and the work to our employees, against our wishes, while the vast majority of the students involved, 65 out of 68, are educated in 15 schools outside our district, as far off as Killington and Middlebury. Where is the sense or efficiency in that? Still, the BOE intends to move forward.
Of course, it is a problem that consolidation has had very little effect on spending thus far. This lack of impact is perfectly logical given that the entire process is divisive, distracting from the work of education, resource-intensive and one-off in nature, but it is problematic. The deals that have been brokered are embarrassingly few, they progress at a snail's pace and there are too few in the pipeline. Certainly the whole effort doesn't put a dent in the estimated $50 million in new education spending this year. When we face these facts, we see that the state needs to support systemic change across all schools, informing education delivery and funding choices, sharpening our focus and driving efficiency through accountability where it is absent and incentives where it exists. The AOE and BOE by contrast conclude consolidation should be forced.
We sit and wonder where is the efficiency gain sending staff to oversee student plans in 15 far-flung schools that have support and administrative resources of their own? How does this consolidation advance our vision for education or serve our communities? Where is the accountability for decisions and cost-shifting like this? The insane tax burden on our communities, which is amplified with every dollar per pupil we spend, will certainly increase if the SBE votes in favor of the AOE plan in the name of cost savings. Whose savings, we ask? Not ours and not those of the towns whose supervisory union they aim to close. We have carefully reviewed the numbers. Savings won't just happen because we dream them up, or ... "because we say so!"
It is absolutely critical for the BOE not to race to the finish line to achieve the objective of consolidation and in the process cram down communities with new costs and far flung responsibility they don't want and they can't afford. It is time for the AOE to go back to the drawing board and work with the Legislature to heighten local accountability for performance across all communities and put in place the right supports and incentives to drive constructive results. The ends don't always justify the means, but the means do need to be justified. Losing sight of this will not help curb our spending problem.
Heidi Spear is chair of the Fayston School Board, Rob Rosen is a Warren School Board and WWSU Board member and Eva Frankel is a member of the Waitsfield School Board and chair of the WWSU Board.