Academic journal article Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)

Early Experiences Implementing Voluntary School District Mergers in Vermont

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)

Early Experiences Implementing Voluntary School District Mergers in Vermont

Article excerpt

The quality of public education in the state of Vermont is challenged by escalating costs and declining population. Vermont's students consistently score among the top 10 states in the country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and enjoy the lowest ratio of students to teachers in the United States (Picus, Odden, Glenn, Griffith, & Wolkoff, 2012). But Vermont's per-pupil educational cost was recently ranked as the highest in the United States (NEA Research, 2014). During the period 1997-2011, inflation-adjusted per-pupil expenditures increased by 57% (Cornman, 2013), while enrollment dropped by 20% (Rockler & Kavet, 2006; Vermont State Board of Education, 2012).

At the same time, there has been little change in Vermont's structure of educational governance since 1882 (Cyprian, 2012). In terms of enrollment, Vermont's school districts are the smallest in the United States (NEA Research, 2014). The state's 85,184 students are served by 298 school districts (Vermont State Board of Education, 2012). Most school districts are organized within 46 Supervisory Unions (SUs), which are administrative units consisting of two or more school districts, led by a superintendent and governed by a board elected by the SU member districts' boards. An additional 12 single districts and two interstate districts are administratively classified as SUs.

Amid growing concerns about educational costs and the ability of a decentralized system to equitably provide educational opportunities, in 2009 the General Assembly passed Act 153 (No. 153, 2010) to encourage voluntary school district mergers and to consolidate administrative services through joint agreements between existing SUs. The legislation also requested from the University of Vermont's James M. Jeffords Center for Policy Research (Jeffords Center) a study of the discussions, elections, and implementation of merger activities. The current article is based on the three-year study, which was designed to address the initial reactions to merger discussions and the experiences of those responsible for planning and implementing the first mergers attempted in the state.

Related Literature

The merging or consolidation of school districts1 has been a fundamental issue of education governance in the United States for most of the past century. The number of school districts across the country has declined by roughly 90% since the 1930s, and the issue of mergers has been a subject of research and debate for much of that time (Berry & West, 2010; Cubberley, 1922). The general value of district mergers has been vigorously questioned in recent as well as past years (Cox & Cox, 2010; Howley, Johnson, & Petrie, 2011; Pennsylvania School Boards Association, 2009; Sher & Tompkins, 1977), and there have even been calls for deconsolidation (Coulson, 2007; Kuziemko, 2006). However, cost savings have been documented in New York among smaller districts of 1,500 pupils or fewer (Duncombe & Yinger, 2007), and other cost function analyses have come to similar conclusions (Zimmer, DeBoer, & Hirth, 2009). In populous states where districts are already large, the prospects for mergers to reduce costs may be limited, but the value proposition is more attractive in states with small districts such as Vermont, where only 7 of 277 districts exceed 1,500 pupils (Vermont State Board of Education, 2012).

Vermont's small population is also one of the most rural in the United States. By one commonly used definition, the percentage of total population living in rural communities, Vermont (66%) is more similar to Wyoming (70%) and Idaho (65%), than it is to Maine (41%), the next most rural New England state (Rural Assistance Center, 2014). The geographic dispersion and low population of rural districts creates unique tensions between the role of schools as a locus of community identity (Lyson, 2002) and the challenge of efficiently providing high-quality educational opportunities for all students (Meyers & Rogers, 2013). …

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