Op-Ed: The path to the Blueprint

Gov. Phil Scott has initially distanced himself from a plan to abolish local school boards and replace them with a single entity run from Montpelier. But the Greatly Simplified School District, as it’s dubbed, is clearly the next logical step for an administration that is determined to drive down education spending and doesn’t trust local school boards to do the job.

“I don’t think we’re ready for anything like that at this point,” Scott told VTDigger reporter Lola Duffort, who first reported on the administration’s plan: “Designing our Future: A Blueprint for Transforming Vermont’s Education System.”

The idea of one state school district, with four administrative regions, stood in stark contrast to the image of Vermont the governor evoked in his Inaugural Address earlier this month. He described a state of “251 towns, cities, and villages,” where “the good … lives in each and every one of our communities.” But since taking office two years ago, the Scott administration has pushed to reduce the role of local school boards and local voters and give Montpelier greater control over education, especially over education spending.

In his first year – well into the legislative session – he proposed that the state take charge of negotiating health benefits for all teachers and school employees. Last year, days after voters overwhelmingly approved local school budgets throughout the state, the governor called for an additional $40 million reduction in education spending.

And the administration tried to squeeze local school officials even after they had put together budgets that, in the aggregate, came in a full percentage below what the governor had demanded. Scott had called for a spending increase of no more than 2.5 percent. The budgets the voters approved represented a 1.5 percent increase. But after thanking the local officials for their good work, Scott’s Administration Secretary told Vermont Public Radio: “Our belief is it’s time for state policymakers to take over.”

The “Blueprint” was developed by the secretary of education and other administration officials. After details of the plan leaked, it was described as part of a “visioning process,” a “conversation fielder,” and “collaborative efforts to imagine a new system focused on quality and equity.”

But even though the governor said he didn’t think Vermont was ready for the plan “at this point,” it clearly would address a lot of the things in the current system the governor has complained about. There would be no local school boards, and local voters would have no say in school budgets. Instead, “each regional superintendent would prepare an expenditure budget for his or her region and submit the budget to the secretary for approval. The secretary would be responsible for creating an overall education budget, which would be submitted to the General Assembly for approval as part of the regular state budgeting process.” All staffing decisions and allocation of resources would be made by the four regional superintendents under the supervision of the secretary.

It would be a much more efficient way to control and reduce education spending. And if the governor doesn’t succeed with his efforts to attract young families to Vermont, and enrollment continues to drop, a Greatly Simplified School District would be an efficient vehicle to close unwanted schools and reassign students.

Vermont may not be ready at this point. But given the administration’s first two years, the future might not be that far off.

  Written by Jack Hoffman, Public Assets Institute, www.publicassets.org.

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