by Joseph Gresser
NEWPORT—John Castle, who is leaving his post as superintendent of the North Country Supervisory Union, spent much of his time on the job embroiled in disputes with the Legislature and the Agency of Education. As he prepares to step out the door after eight years on the job — an eternity given the current rapid turnover of school officials — the North Country board just decided to sue the state.
In a conversation that took place on June 23 at a picnic table behind the supervisory union’s office building, Mr. Castle explained the issue. It concerns Act 173, a law that will distribute money for special education in the form of block grants.
Those grants are based on a district’s population, but do not take into account the number of children with an individualized education program, usually called an IEP. Such a program is designed to provide a child who has learning difficulties with the kind of schooling needed to address them.
Block grants will mean wealthy districts with a smaller percentage of students needing IEPs will get cash they don’t actually need. As the bill doesn’t make the pot any larger, that means supervisory unions with a high percentage of special education students will lose funding.
“The problem is, when Act 173 was established, it called for the weighting study,” Mr. Castle said.
A weighting study is intended to determine how much more it costs schools with large numbers of students who are affected by traumatic experiences, such as family poverty, to educate those children.
Act 173 called for such a study to be completed in order to see whether the block grant plan was the correct way to distribute limited special education money.
“It took two years plus to do the study and when they finally did the study, the pandemic hit they deferred everything,” Mr. Castle said. “Then they decided not to because it’d be too confusing, and it would be problematic for them to do, so they disregarded what their own law asked for.”
The lawsuit is intended to force the state to obey Act 173 and hold off implementing the block grants until the study is done.
If it is unsuccessful and the new block grants are put into place as planned, part of the state such as the Northeast Kingdom, which preliminary studies have shown require more money to educate children, partly because of their rural nature, and partly because of trauma caused by poverty and other factors, will lose immediately.
Should a study show a need for weighting and a readjustment of state special education funding, Mr. Castle said changes would come into effect in fiscal year 2025. Rather than the sudden change expected for the coming school year, the weighting adjustments will be eased in over five years, so districts that will lose money won’t feel their effects all at once, he said.
The change in special education funding and the lawsuit to which it gave rise are only a couple of the issues that Mr. Castle’s successor, Elaine Collins, will have to deal with.
Like many other districts, North Country is losing many teachers and other staff members, he said. While there is often turnover in the teaching profession, this year is unusual both in the number of positions that need filling, and the smaller than usual pool of applicants looking for jobs.
“There are so many dynamics right now and part of it is because fewer people are going into the field of education,” Mr. Castle said. “There are more people exiting the field of education. There are some people that just said, ‘I’m done. It’s just too hard. It’s much too challenging, and I could do something else and make as much money and, sure I won’t get June, July and August off, but I’m going to perhaps make more money, and have less stress, and be more valued.”
In addition, Mr. Castle said the school year that just ended was particularly stressful. Although most COVID regulations were lifted, there was a lot of the illness around and teachers lost time due to their own sickness or to take care of family members. Students, too, often could not come to school either because they had COVID or because they had been exposed and needed to isolate themselves.
The result is that there are currently 30 job openings for licensed teaching professionals in the supervisory union.
Those vacancies are not spread evenly. Charleston, for instance needs to find five new teachers. While that is a difficulty, Mr. Castle said North Country’s governance structure has kept town school boards intact. Their members, he said, are in a position to make decisions that best suit their communities, he said.
Overall, though, the response to ads has not been as strong as usual.
“It’s unfathomable to me that we would actually have a classroom teaching position unfilled,” Mr. Castle said. “Those are things that you would get historically 30 or 40 applicants and probably have six or seven viable candidates. And now, we’re getting in five or six candidates, and there’s a question about the viability of any of the candidates.”
He said schools are getting applications from all around the world, which is fine, but the people submitting them are not doing what is typical, explaining in some way why they are interested in coming to northern Vermont.
Mr. Castle told about being surprised to see an application from his former college roommate, who headed a number of private schools, but had put his hat in the ring for the job of principal of the Coventry Village School.
Mr. Castle said he called his friend and told him the school was in his supervisory union. He said his friend was surprised to hear it and said he applied because he liked the name of the town.
After thinking it over, he withdrew his application.
Some of the vacancies may require readjustment of how subjects are taught, Mr. Castle said. For instance, North Country Union High School is currently without a French or a Spanish teacher and may have to arrange for online instruction in languages.
Another effect of the turmoil of the last few years is a drop in graduation rates at North Country Union High School. Mr. Castle said they’ve fallen below 80 percent.
Nevertheless, he expressed great confidence in the team of administrators and school staff he has built up over his time at North Country. He said he is very pleased that Ms. Collins will be taking over from him.
“So I’m ultimately very optimistic and I also have great faith in Elaine Collins, in her leadership, and capacity to lead North Country Supervisory Union,” he said. “She is the absolute right person given her background and her commitment to rural schools and her work in both Brownington and Newport most recently.”
Much of Mr. Castle’s time during his time as superintendent was spent tussling with the state over Act 46, the law that used carrots and sticks to induce town school districts to consolidate into multi-town districts.
Mr. Castle lobbied against passage of the law, but when it went into effect, used its provisions to keep his supervisory union as it had been, one made up of a large number of town school districts, each with its own board.
He praised what he called the “fighting spirit,” of the North Country Supervisory Union.
“In the context of Act 46, there was obviously strong opposition,” he said. “You’re not going to bully us into centralizing.”
Mr. Castle recalled a conversation with Chittenden County Senator Philip Baruth, then the head of the Senate Education Committee, and one of the main authors of Act 46.
“I get Philip Baruth on the phone telling me that I misunderstood the law, and I said, ‘No, you misunderstood the law, there is an alternative governance process,’” Mr. Castle said. “He’s literally trying to twist my arm the day before the issue was going to vote, to get me to say, ‘no, we’re not going to pursue this.’”
Despite the efforts of Senator Baruth and others, Mr. Castle, backed by the North Country board and parents from around the area insisted on the union’s right to have an alternative structure.
He prepared a mountain of evidence, and delivered it in the form of a stack of fat binders stuffed with paper. In the end, he said, there was something about the North Country union that distinguished it from others that were compelled to consolidate.
“They could not force us to merge,” Mr. Castle said, pointing to the dissimilarity of many of the North Country schools.
Unlike Orleans Central Supervisory Union which is composed of schools that all cover grades kindergarten through eight and could be grouped into a single district, “we couldn’t do that here because we had K-sixes and K-eights and some had choice and some didn’t have choice, and that saved us.”
Mr. Castle admitted that going to many widely separated school board meetings each months takes a toll, but he noted that superintendents around the state who pushed for mergers, partly in hopes of reducing their workloads, are quitting their jobs all over the state.
He said it was a case of being careful of what you wish for, remarking that he had to chuckle when colleagues who were pleased at going from a 22-member board to a five-person one, and then find the smaller one much more trouble to deal with “because all it takes is three people to say no.”
From North Country Mr. Castle will move to become executive director of the Vermont Rural Education Collaborative, one of several organizations set up around the nation to support education in a region.
In his new job, Mr. Castle will work with principals and superintendents in districts in the northeastern part of the state. In addition to helping them with the work of developing ways of deliver personalized education, Mr. Castle said he may find himself in Montpelier once in a while arguing for the policies he thinks will serve the region’s schools, educators, and students best.