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Whiting school threatened by proposed consolidation bill - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Whiting school threatened by proposed consolidation bill

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WHITING, Vt. - Local property taxes are far lower in Whiting now, but not much else has changed at the Whiting Village School since 1997, when former Governor Howard Dean signed Act 60 into law.

The bill came as a direct result of a lawsuit filed by Amanda Brigham and her mother Carol, among others.

"If I'm really for the school system like I say I am, I want to try to do this, see if it's going to make a difference," said Carol Brigham.

The school still features multi-age classrooms to accommodate the few dozen students in grades kindergarten through sixth.
Act 60 and the following Act 68 sought to decouple the quality of education students received from the wealth of a community.
"This is about children, this is not about money," said Dean when he signed the bill.

In the 17 years since 1997, school costs and property taxes statewide ballooned. Vermont is on pace to spend $1.5 billion in the coming school year and that's nearly double the $787 million it spent during the 1998-1999 school year.

A proposal crafted this year in the House of Representatives hopes to slow that growth. It would reduce Vermont's 277 school districts into about 50 over time, and scrap supervisory unions all together.

Vermont districts currently cover an average of 300 students; nationwide that figure is 3,000. Proponents of consolidation can't say how much saving we'll see, but they believe another benefit would be more equal opportunity for children. But Brigham says she's concerned that proposal could close this small school. "So this legislation would take voices away, and once those voices are taken away, they'll never be given back," said Brigham.

Brigham continues to hold membership on both the school and supervisory union board, after more than 20 years of service and seeing both of her children enter the workforce. She says the small school breeds a sense of community and notes that those in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union already split many of their costs between institutions -- one of the much touted potential benefits of consolidation. "The consolidation bill is sounding like this miracle to cure-all when we haven't identified what is the real problem," said Brigham.

Whiting Village spends less than $12,000 per student while the state average is $14,000. Brigham points to a report commissioned by the state last year as proof that Act 60/68 worked in creating equity. It also found personnel costs are the biggest driver in growing school spending across the state and suggests consolidation could save money.Brigham says schools like Whiting Village offer different opportunities, not less than bigger institutions.
"Opportunities happen one way or the other," said Brigham.

"There's a difference between right-sizing administrative bureaucracy and closing schools," said Governor Peter Shumlin (D-Vermont.)
Shumlin insists consolidation won't be forced, though current drafts of the proposal would require just that by 2020. He also says it will remain up to local communities whether to keep their small schools. However, lawmakers could make that decision tougher by repealing the small schools grant that helps make it feasible for the schools to stay open. Whiting's $11,800 per pupil cost does not include cash it receives through the grant.

"I do think that whatever the legislature does should empower local communities to decide their future and their destiny," said Gov. Shumlin.

The consolidation is in jeopardy of stalling. With only a couple of weeks left in the session, only the House has looked at the issue.
Shumlin says he'll lean on Senators to give the proposal a speedy and thorough vetting in order to pass something this year.
"Let's not use time as an excuse to stand still," said Shumlin.

But Brigham says the other excuse to stand still is in the lawsuit that bears her daughter's name. Along with calling for equalized funding for all students, the Supreme Court decision also states that individual school districts are in the best position to structure their educational offerings and resolve issues of a local nature. But the ruling doesn't say how big or small those districts should be.

The Speaker of the House says he supports consolidation and expects the issue to reach the full body for a vote in the next couple of days. Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell says it would be a heavy lift for the Senate to tackle a proposal this year.
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