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Window of Opportunity?

Inside Track


Published February 14, 2007 at 5:00 p.m.

Look. Yours truly rarely goes near an "education" story. The layers of education bureaucracy and gobbledygook drove us away 20 years ago. For a state with fewer students statewide than the 40 largest school districts in the nation, Vermont manages to pack in 284 school districts. Then everybody complains that it costs too much!

But this year, folks, a window of opportunity has opened in Vermont that we've never seen before.

And two political leaders, one from the ranks of the Republican Douglas Administration and one from the ranks of the Senate Democratic leadership, have recognized it and stepped up to the plate accordingly. Facing reality is key.

"We are a pretty small state," Education Commissioner Richard Cate told the big Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce breakfast audience Monday morning at the Sheraton. "We have today the same number of K-12 students we had in 1836, 170 years ago. It has varied between 90,000 and 105,000 over that 170 years, and the recent history of it has looked like a flat sine curve. We are now on the downside," he said, "but we will flatten out when we get around 90-91,000 students, and then it'll be flat for awhile and gradually go back up."

Cate told the Chittenden County business crowd he'd grown up in "a small town in central Vermont."

"I went to a two-room schoolhouse," said the Calais native with apparent pride. "There were two of us in my class. I understand small schools. I'm just telling you it does not get us where we need to get in this day and age for kids," said the ed commish. "And, oh, by the way, it's not economically efficient, either," he added with a touch of sarcasm unusual for an education commissioner.

But then, this particular education commissioner is unusual. Commissioner Cate, now a Burlington resident, is a passionate kayaker who used to defuse land mines in the 1970s along the Demilitarized Zone in Korea. And last year, Commissioner Cate publicly began defusing the biggest political land mine in Vermont's public education system.

You see, yours truly hasn't gone anywhere near the education beat in more than two decades for good reason. Vermonters love to complain about the cost of public schools and the property taxes that pay for them. But don't you ever dare suggest that the bureaucratic, multilayered system of 284 individual Vermont school districts that administer and govern the Green Mountain State's public schools be trimmed in any way, shape or form.

Last year, Cate went public for the first time with his suggestion that the time had come for Vermont's public education system to get serious about cost and efficiency. The time had come for Vermont to tighten its belt and shrink from the current 284 individual school districts to something in the range of 50 to 60.


Yours truly's experience with the Vermont public education scene is that no one, certainly no respectable person, has ever publicly suggested such heresy! How could anyone possibly propose that the Vermont public school system get as serious about the bottom line as are the businesses we own or work for?

But something serious is going on here, folks. That became clear when the microphone passed to Democratic State Sen. Susan Bartlett. The Orleans High School and UVM graduate is a Hyde Park resident who has been serving under the golden dome for 14-plus years. Sen. Bartlett is currently the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. The state budget is her baby. Dollars and cents, as well as common sense, are her expertise. And she doesn't beat around the bush.

"Here's my whole plan in restructuring of education," said Bartlett as she addressed an attentive Chamber crowd. Looking skyward, she said, "Protect me when I trample on all these sacred ideas that I'm about to talk about."

Bartlett said she thinks a lot about education, about money and about cost.

"This past summer I had this epiphany," she told the Chamberites, "when I realized that there is no one single person in the State of Vermont whose job it is to look at educational spending as a whole."

Surely you jest, we thought, as no doubt many did in the room. But guess what?

She's correct.

"That's the equivalent of the governor not looking at the general-fund budget and sending it to the legislature," said Chairman Bartlett. "We don't look at it and it just gets passed."

People "make the assumption" that the education commissioner bird-dogs education spending, she said. But that "is not his job.

"In a budget that is more than a billion dollars," said the senator, "no one's job is to look at it, understand it, or have any idea about how to control it. No wonder nobody's got any idea about what's happening," she said, "because no one has ever really looked at it this way."

Bartlett said the solution to Vermont's education spending problem is based on the fundamental fact that no one is responsible for controlling costs!

The Bartlett Solution?

"OK. I believe we should have 14 school districts in the state of Vermont," she told the attentive audience. "Each district would have a superintendent who takes care of the educational aspects. Each district would also have a chief financial officer who takes care of the finances."

Local schools and school boards would remain, said Bartlett. And local principals and school boards would deal with education. Every one of the 14 districts would have an "executive committee" of five members. The superintendent and financial officer would report to the executive committee, not one another.

"On a rotating basis, the folks from every school in that district would get a three-year term on that executive committee," said Bartlett. "So in my county, little Belvidere would ultimately have as much control as Stowe has over what's going on."

Bartlett told the Chamber crowd that her proposal to reduce the number of school districts from 284 to 14 would actually "give people more local control, because your local principal and your local school board will be dealing with the education of the children in their school, not how many pieces of paper they get to buy."

There was a time very recently when no one on Vermont's public-policy stage would dare suggest such a radical change in the state's public school playing field. Tiny, local schools and the school boards that go with them have been as much a part of Vermont culture as maple syrup.

But times are changing. As Cate and Bartlett demonstrate, it is no longer a sin in Vermont to suggest the public school system change from the 19th-century model it embraces into something more 21st-century.

"Sometimes we come to this conversation presuming that we already are in a system that looks like the rest of the world and are proposing to change it," said Cate. "We don't."

In fact, he said, "We look very different than almost anywhere else. We have individual school boards for one school that may have 30 students in it."

What he and Sen. Bartlett are talking about "isn't radical thinking," insisted Cate. "It's radically different from what we have today, but it's not radical compared to what the rest of the world looks like."

Afterwards, Sen. Bartlett told "Inside Track" she seriously believes there is a legitimate "window of opportunity" this biennium for action on the Vermont education-reform front, i.e., reducing the bureaucracy and duplication that results from all those school districts. For the last few years, she said, health-care reform sucked up all the oxygen. Not this session.

But they don't have a lot of time.

"We don't have five years to do this, because taxpayers have had it and I don't blame them," said Sen. Bartlett. "If we don't show that we can control costs and get a better product, that you're asked in business to do all the time, then there's going to be a backlash." Sen. Bartlett does not want to see that.

"So I'm willing," she said, "to have difficult conversations and stand up and say, 'Go ahead and throw things and yell at me.'"

Good girl!

Cate and Bartlett do have two obvious things in common. One is the education they received in Vermont public schools. The other is the political courage they're demonstrating today on education reform.

P.S. Green Mountain Power's Chief Operating Officer Mary Powell also had a seat on Monday morning's Chamber of Commerce panel, and afterwards told us she liked what she had heard. Powell noted, "Act 60 took away the funding debate, anyway" with the introduction of a statewide property tax.

The current situation in public education, said Powell, "feels like it's the classic Dilbert. All these school boards pulling out their hair. They don't control the dollars, yet they're spending all their time talking about it like they do. Let's get over it," said the GMP executive.

Good advice, eh?


Media Notes - It's not often that young, up-and-coming reporters in the Vermont TV news game leave for a major market and then come back. Maybe it's a sign of brains?

Well, brains may certainly have played a role, but there was a bigger reason for her return to the Green Mountain State, said Anya Huneke, the chief of the one-person Vermont Bureau of New England Cable News.


Anya married Mike Trombley, owner of Advance Music, last fall. And when the NECN outpost in Colchester opened, Huneke, a Boston-based health reporter, grabbed it.

The New York City native and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania was on the original news team that restarted the dormant local news operation at ABC22 WVNY-TV in 1999. Unfortunately, the operation did not take off, ratings-wise, despite having some talented folks on staff. The CW was, Ch. 3 and Ch. 5 have had this market split two ways for so long that no third-party news operation had a chance.

Reporter Huneke departed in 2001 when her contract ran out. Put in a little time waitressing at Breakwater and then, in 2002, landed another job in journalism as NECN reporter working out of Ch. 5/WPTZ's Colchester bureau. In 2004, she made the move to Beantown.

Happy to be back, and not missing those Boston traffic jams, Anya told "Inside Track" she intends to do longer, more in-depth reports as the new Vermont Bureau Chief.


In fact, we'd suggest a half-hour in-depth Vermont news documentary show would fly. A 30-minute Vermont version of "60 Minutes." No shortage of material, folks.

Dream on, right?

The sad fact is, the Vermont press, like the press everywhere, has been rapidly shrinking. ABC22/News gave up in September 2003 and ended their local news operation. Twenty-five people out of work. It's a sign of the times.


Where Do They Go? - Well, that question was answered in a Sunday piece by Ross Sneyd of Montpeculiar's Associated Press Bureau. Many have gone the way of Vermont Press Bureau Chief, blogger and Sunday Rutland Herald/Times Argus columnist Darren Allen: to work as a spin doctor - sorry, communications specialist - in the ranks of the communications-conscious administration of Republican Gov. James Douglas.

"They have the titles now, and they're much more media-savvy," said Glenn Gershaneck, press secretary to former Govs. Richard Snelling and Howard Dean. "Reporters are going wholesale into press relations. I think there's a lot more."

Now, there's nothing wrong with being a communications specialist or press secretary. God forbid. Yours truly was one for a few lively months in the good old days, when the current president's daddy was president. But the administration of Madeleine Kunin, or Howard Dean, for that matter, couldn't hold a candle to the number of talented "flacks" populating the various nooks and crannies of the Douglas Administration. Ross Sneyd was able to find at least 14 of them.

Why do they do it - make the switcherooo from journalist to image-polisher?

Would you believe . . . money?

As Sneyd's research into pay records found, the best of the Douglas Administration flacks are earning in the mid-$60s in their new government positions. Our sources say that's around a 20-grand bump from what they were making as journalists, whose job it is to keep an eye on government.

Life's not fair.


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