House and Senate education conferees shake hands after reaching an agreement on a school district consolidation bill Thursday evening.
Education conference committee members meet Thursday to work through differences before agreeing to a compromise on school-district consolidation.
House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement Thursday evening on an education bill that appears to land somewhere between being too onerous and too weak.
The bill would offer incentives, but makes no mandate, for consolidating Vermont's 272 school districts into what lawmakers argue will be more efficient entities.
The agreement goes to the Senate for a vote Friday, then to the House.
The bill also would slap penalties on school districts that spend more than a certain threshold for the next two years, with the penalty hitting high-spending districts harder.
“We’re positive this is going to do great things for Vermont’s education,” declared House Education Committee chair David Sharpe (D-Bristol).
Sharpe won the immediate cost-containment he had sought but which the Senate had resisted. The Senate won concessions too.
The bill would not outright mandate school district mergers, which senators feared would hit small schools harder. Instead, it offers two waves of incentives in which those merging in the next few years would see reduced taxes. “The longer you wait, the less advantageous the funding,” Sharpe said.
Those who decline to merge could continue on their own as long as they are meeting the state Board of Education’s standards. The board would have the authority to force schools not making the grade to merge. Merged districts would not be required to have a minimum number of students, as previous proposals required, but the bill recommends 900 students.
“I think we got a bill that positions us well for the future,” said Senate Education Committee chair Ann Cummings (D-Washington).
Gov. Peter Shumlin praised the compromise too. “This is really a historic moment,” Shumlin said. “We have agreed to a bill that’s finally going to address the rising cost of education and improve quality for our kids.”
Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover), who had feared earlier proposals would force small schools to close without solving school-spending issues, liked the compromise better. “What I saw was workable,” Sibilia said. “It doesn’t judge all small schools the same.”
The Senate was opposed to a previous proposal in the House to put a hard cap on school spending. Instead, conferees settled on a spending "threshold" that Rep. Oliver Olsen (I-Londonderry) suggested.
Overall school spending would be limited for two years to a 2 percent increase. Districts could spend more — but would be penalized for doing so, with high-spending districts reaching the penalty more quickly. Highest in per-pupil spending Weybridge would be limited to a level-funded budget before being penalized, while lowest in spending per-pupil Duxbury would be able to spend 5.5 percent more before hitting the penalty. The spending constraint is expected to save about $12 million.