Vermont principal says independent schools a solution, not a threat

MORE FOR LESS: Head of School Tom Martin says that the Village School of North Bennington costs less to operate now that it has made a switch from public to independent.

By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog

He’s been called a threat, but the head of Vermont’s newest independent school says the state has nothing to fear from the likes of Village School of North Bennington that have achieved more yet cost less to operate.

“Our independent school is operating on far less than $2 million dollars. We’re operating on about $1.8 million now,” Tom Martin told Vermont Watchdog.

Prior to switching from public to private last year, the K-6 school located in southwestern Vermont operated on an annual budget of $2.1 million. Today, the school runs the same robust educational program as one year ago, but without the high cost of belonging to a highly bureaucratic system.

“We don’t have supervisory union administrative involvement, curriculum, resources, assessment or technology — all those services a supervisory union provides for districts, assesses them for, and in essence bills them for,” Martin said.

Martin doesn’t look threatening, but when the white-mustached head of the Village School helped transition from public to independent last year, state officials, including the secretary of education, called the move “a threat.” Now the governor, the Legislature and the secretary of education are on a path to end education independence in Vermont by merging all schools — public and independent — into newly consolidated districts.

Daren Houck, the head of school for Mountain School at Winhall, said lawmakers should think twice before merging schools into consolidated districts.

“I understand what we spend, but it doesn’t seem like they are attacking it the right way. Private schools spend thousands less per kid and they are able to get outstanding quality,” Houck said. “It seems to me that a universal choice system would be able to provide good competition, and stabilize spending.”

For nearly 150 years Vermont has allowed families in rural areas to send kids to private schools. Today, approximately 11 percent of the K-12 student population in Vermont attends independent academies through a taxpayer voucher averaging $14,055 per student.

While Vermont has a long heritage of supporting independent academies, top officials seem worried more public schools will choose to go private. Shortly after Bennington residents voted to go independent, Martin received a call from the head of the Agency of Education saying the ballot might not be legal.

“(Commissioner Vilaseca) called my office around 4:30 on a Friday afternoon and left a voice mail asking questions about the ballot item. I remember at the time thinking to myself, ‘This is the commissioner of education calling the principal’s office of an elementary school, asking questions about a ballot item that was organized by the supervisory union?”

According to Houck, declining enrollments and fewer public schools are a concern for state officials.

“(When schools go independent), that’s fewer public schools, and therefore they’re concerned about public school dollars and what they’re paying into the education fund to cover salaries of teachers. That seems to be the ultimate driver of what people are concerned about.”

Houck adds that declining enrollment also affects the number of teachers in the state.

“You see a continuing decline of students, and with lower student numbers you have the threat of less teachers. The NEA definitely wants as many numbers as possible,” Houck said.

Martin claims the ultimate root of the problem, however, is Act 68, the legislation behind the state’s funding of education.

“In very simplistic terms, Act 68 creates a relationship between enrollment and the amount of taxes people pay to support the school. The expectation of Act 68 is that if you have declining enrollment, you should have declining expenditures. If you have stagnant enrollment, you should have a stagnant expenditure profile,” he said. “But with schools that have a stagnant enrollment profile, the expenditures are not stagnant.”

Martin insists the independent school model is a solution to the current unsustainable funding under Act 68, and he urged lawmakers to look at alternatives to district consolidation.

“To people who are threatened by this, all I’ve ever asked is that the people who are responsible for education policy step back and have an open mind about what course may be the best in terms of the market that exists, which is declining enrollment and competition for resources,” he said.

“Look at different models. There may be other ways to run the schools more efficiently than the lockstep adherence to combining districts and making them larger and more centralized.”

Contact Bruce Parker at bparker@watchdog.org

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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