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Report: Vermont's Smallest Schools a 'Financial Drain'

Small schools and districts in Vermont are a burden on the state's education system and are "financially unsustainable," according to a recent story by Vermont Public Radio.

The story focuses on a new report that found that at a certain enrollment level, per-pupil costs become exorbitant and academic offerings may decline. One of the researchers, Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers University, wrote that while some small schools and districts can remain efficient, when school enrollment gets to 100 or fewer students, there may be "an inability to provide breadth and depth of course offerings at the secondary level."

Vermont has one of the highest percentages of rural schools, districts, and students in the nation. Nearly 92 percent of school districts in the state are small and rural, and more than 57 percent of students attend rural schools. These schools may have more transportation costs than those in more urban areas, and may not be able to rely on property taxes as much as urban districts.

Baker told Vermont Public Radio that school consolidation, not just district consolidation, could save money. For decades, consolidation has been considered a solution for Vermont's small districts to cut down on costs, and has created some unique school district models. In 1998, four rural towns, three in Vermont and one in New Hampshire, willingly consolidated their schools to create a new, more cost-effective school district. That district, which was thought to be the first interstate school district, now serves about 475 students across the two states.

In the past few years, Vermont education legislation has focused heavily on consolidation. Last year, legislators proposed consolidating the state's 273 districts into fewer than 60 districts. This week, a bill that would require school districts to consider consolidation passed the state's House of Representatives. This year, Vermont is slated to spend more than $7 million in Small Schools Support grants to schools in the state that have an average class size of 20 or fewer students, or a two-year average enrollment less than 100 students. 

School and district consolidation, however, is a controversial topic in many rural areas. Some rural communities view local schools as part of the community's identity and balk at the idea of losing those schools. Some research has found that consolidation and the resulting larger schools can offer more courses and professional development for teachers. Opponents of consolidation say that small schools often have higher graduation rates and equal or better test scores than larger schools.

Research assistance provided by Librarian Holly Peele

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