CSSU mulls regional school board (3/11/10)

Survey shows voters are open to consolidation

March 11, 2010

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

With seven school boards representing residents across Chittenden South Supervisory Union, education officials are considering whether consolidating CSSU into one school district is a good idea.

Voters in five Addison County towns might believe so. On Town Meeting Day, voters approved the merger of the four school districts within the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union. As of next school year, the union will have one 12-member board.

And based on the preliminary results of a local Town Meeting survey, the majority of voters in CSSU towns seem to agree that there needs to be a change in board structure.

As part of an optional questionnaire given out on Tuesday’s Election Day by the Champlain Valley Union High School Board, voters were asked if CSSU should condense its seven boards into one. While board officials had not processed the final survey results by press deadline, the early findings suggest 60 percent of those polled support consolidation. The remaining 40 percent did not support a merger or did not have an opinion. Roughly 600 people completed the survey.

CVU School Board Chairwo-man Jeanne Jensen said the results show residents are looking for a change in the way boards operate.

“I guess I am a little surprised by the results,” Jensen said. “It was higher than I thought it would be.”

Williston School Board member Darlene Worth, who also chairs the CSSU board, said now is the right time to have a conversation about board consolidation. She hopes to focus on the issue this year.

“We have too many boards and too many board members in this state,” Worth said.

The Vermont Department of Education strongly advocates shrinking the number of school districts across the state and two bills in the Legislature could make district consolidation law.

Mark Oettinger, general counsel for the Department of Education, said 280 school districts in Vermont is far too large a number for a small state. He said only through consolidation can schools control and reduce expenditures.

“The cost savings is likely to be significant,” Oettinger said.

Attempts have been made statewide in the past to merge districts, yet with few results, he said. But the current economy could be what pushes legislators and residents in the direction of consolidation.

“If there’s ever a time for dramatic change, this is it,” Oettinger said.

The high number of school districts creates an excessive amount of administrative expenses, which Oettinger believes become redundant and unnecessary. Worth pointed out that, in many ways, CSSU already acts as a unified district.

Services, including technology and transportation, are shared between schools. CSSU purchases school supplies in bulk, creating significant savings, as well. Also, the supervisory union negotiates as a group when it comes to teacher contracts, Worth said.

“We have a lot of efficiencies already,” she said.

While supervisory unions across the state debate district mergers, Oettinger said consolidation may become mandatory depending on what occurs this spring. One bill, S.252, would reduce the total number of school districts to no more than 16 over the next five years. Such a low number might make CSSU member towns join with other districts, he said.

A different bill, proposed two weeks ago by Democratic state Sen. Peter Peltz of Woodbury, suggests shrinking the state’s 60 supervisory unions through tax incentives. Oettinger said both bills have merits and the Department of Education is watching developments carefully.

Jensen believes the possibility of having only 12 to 24 school districts in Vermont might be too big a change for residents used to small, local boards. But she agrees a reduction in school boards is a good idea.

So what would a CSSU school district look like? Worth believes there wouldn’t be many obvious changes, aside from the fact there would be one board instead of several. Currently, the 17-member CSSU board is made up of school board members from Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne, St. George, Williston and CVU.

Jensen thinks the board might resemble the make-up of the 11-member CVU School Board, where each town contributes members based on population. For instance, Williston with its larger populace has four CVU board members while Charlotte has two. Jensen said it would be an easy and quick transition.

“I can’t believe it would take very long because the general public is certainly aware of the ongoing conversation at the state level,” Jensen said. “But I would be surprised if (consolidation) made it onto a ballot next year.”