Consolidating rural school districts with sparse enrollment is a complicated—and contentious—process that can unfold over several years.
Case in point: Vermont, where the issue has been roiling the local and legislative landscape for a year now.
Amid rising education costs for a rapidly dwindling student population, that state's legislature last year passed a law aiming to reward residents of districts willing to consolidate with a series of tax breaks—and to significantly increase the local homestead-tax rate on those districts that stay independent and spend beyond a series of caps set by the state.
The state—which spends an average of $18,000 per student, the highest rate in the nation—has more than 280 districts, serving just 80,000 students. At least 79 of those districts have fewer than 100 students, and one district has just 19.
By 2018, the state legislature hopes the consolidation law will cut the number of districts in half, allowing schools to better share academic and administrative resources.
Residents in 10 areas throughout the state will vote March 1 on whether to consolidate their surrounding districts at the school boards' request.
"We needed to change as a matter of survival," said Jeffrey Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, which supports the new law.
But many Vermont residents who will have to vote on consolidation efforts think the measure will erode the democratic process and lead to the closing of small schools around the mostly rural state.
"Kids here are able to find a niche, and they aren't shuffled along in large groups," said Martha Allen, the president of the Vermont Education Association, the state teachers' union, which is opposed to the law. "It's that kind of a thing that I don't want to lose in our state. The conversation about students and their offerings gets lost when it turns into a spreadsheet with dollars and cents."
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