Keep small schools, school directors say

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Bobby Starr.  Photo by Micaela Bedell
Bobby Starr. Photo by Micaela Bedell

copyright the Chronicle March 18, 2015 

by Joseph Gresser

NEWPORT — Legislators from the Northeast Kingdom were told in no uncertain terms to oppose Montpelier’s efforts to shut down small schools and consolidate districts.

That stern warning came from school board members from around Orleans County and was delivered Monday night at a gathering held at the North Country Career Center. About 20 legislators and school board members sat around a big table while another 30 or 40 people sat nearby.

Orleans Central Supervisory Union (OCSU) Board Chairman Amy Leroux of Irasburg got things off to a start with a presentation on the effects of cutting aid to small schools. Those schools, she said, got more than $480,000 in small school aid this year.

The Irasburg Village School took in $80,000 towards its $1.9-million budget, she said.

Most of the schools in the North Country Supervisory Union are in the same boat, Ms. Leroux said.

At the same time H.361, the bill intended to deal with school funding problems, calls for a 2 percent across-the-board cap on increases in per-student costs, she said. There have been committee efforts to reduce that to 1.5 percent.

The spending cap, Ms. Leroux said, penalizes low-spending districts much more than those that already spend a great deal per pupil.

What will happen to towns that tuition students and have no control over school expenses? How will the cap affect them? Ms. Leroux asked.

The proposal also says little about what happens when special education students move into a district, or when a school building needs unexpected repairs, she said.

Ms. Leroux said the bill does nothing to deal with increasing labor costs. A proposal to require binding arbitration to deal with a bargaining impasse will harm schools because arbitrators tend to base their decisions on what other local schools pay teachers, rather than on what a community can afford to pay.

Scott Boskind, a Derby resident and member of the North Country Union High School Board, agreed with Ms. Leroux.

“The phase-out of small school grants and consolidation of school districts is a way to phase out small schools,” he said.

He said losing small schools would be very bad for Vermont communities, which would lose their centers.

“I’m very, very upset at these initiatives that favor large school districts,” Mr. Boskind said.

In the meantime, small schools hold their budgets down by deferring needed maintenance for years.

State Senator Bobby Starr of North Troy said he went to small schools and received a very good education. He recalled that students in his school often studied in classrooms that combined grades, a system that, he said, resulted in everyone achieving mastery of subjects by the time they left seventh grade.

“Local small schools should be governed by local people,” Mr. Starr said. “People say we should have school choice, it will save a lot of money. Ask Norton how that worked out.”

Representative Vicki Strong of Albany said she had proposed a bill permitting school choice. There are plenty of places in the state where school choice would save money, she said.

North Country Union High School board member Richard Cartee of Newport pointed his finger straight at the Legislature.

“I think Montpelier should be closed down,” he said. “They could care less what happens to us.”

The Northeast Kingdom is doing something right when it comes to education, he said, and legislators would do well to climb on a bus and visit this area to see how local schools provide a quality education at a cost well below that paid in Chittenden County.

Representative Paul Lefebvre, who lives in Newark, said he went to school in Brighton and is biased in favor of small schools. He agreed with Mr. Cartee that the area can be a model to other places in Vermont.

Representative Gary Viens of Newport pointed to the high per-pupil costs in other parts of the state, but said the Kingdom does not have a great deal of political clout.

“We don’t drive this bus, the people in Chittenden County are driving the bus,” he said.

He asked if a bill before the Legislature banning teachers from striking would help area schools.

Peter Moskovites of Charleston, who serves on the North Country Union High School Board, said he thinks it’s a mistake to focus on the teachers union. The overall bill is much more important that what a small section might say, he said.

Mr. Moskovites recalled inviting former Representative Peter Peltz to Charleston to look over that school’s finances.

“How would you change our budget?” he asked, offering the same challenge to any state officials who think they can do a better job than local school board members.

Representative Mark Higley of Lowell said he has gotten a lot of complaints about the education property tax, both from local residents and people who own property in the area but live in Canada or Massachusetts.

“They don’t vote for you,” said Jason Brueck, a school director from Charleston who advocated for higher non-residential taxes.

Adam Trevits, who serves on the Albany School Board, said he can only survive in the area because he has a good job across the state. That, he said, is despite the fact that he lives on land inherited by his wife from her forebears.

The state needs more jobs so young people can remain in Vermont, Mr. Trevits said.

Mr. Brueck disagreed. The problem in the area has more to do with housing, he said. There are enough jobs, but out-of-state buyers drive up home prices so local people can’t afford them, he said.

Raising the non-residential rate substantially might shift that balance, he suggested.

Judith Boucher, the principal at Newport City Elementary School, reminded those at the meeting that local teachers have licenses that allow them to work anywhere in Vermont and in some other states.

They give up higher salaries to work in local schools, she said. Teachers’ workdays are not just from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., she said, but go on into the evening. Their vacations are not just for relaxing. Good teachers, she said, spend that time planning classes, and are often in the school building when classes are not in session.

Most of the objectionable parts of the current bill are likely to be defeated this year, Representative Mike Marcotte of Coventry said. But they will be back in future sessions and the struggle will go on, he said.

contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]

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