A Yale grad from Newport studied Vermont’s school mergers. She found they don’t save much.

By ETHAN WEINSTEIN

VTDigger

Published: 06-09-2024 4:00 PM

While studying economics and education at Yale University, Grace Miller found a surprise topic on the agenda: Vermont’s one-of-a-kind school funding formula. 

The 22-year-old from Newport and her classmates learned about the “Brigham decision,” a 1997 Vermont Supreme Court case that found the state’s education finance system was unconstitutional. 

In response to the case, the state Legislature passed Act 60, which created a funding system that allowed towns to pay equal tax rates for equal spending, regardless of local property wealth. 

When Miller heard about this history in class, it took her aback.

“They were like, Vermont had this crazy court case. And you know, now they finance their education system in a really, really unique way, and it’s really equitable,” she said. “I had never heard of any of that.”

Inspired, Miller decided to dive into Vermont’s education finance system as part of her undergraduate thesis. Her topic: do school district mergers, like the ones prompted by the passage of Act 46 in 2015, save money?

Not exactly, she found. 

Miller’s analysis focused on 109 school districts — 49 that underwent mergers and 60 that did not — tracking spending in a variety of categories both before and after mergers. 

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“I didn’t find any significant savings in spending per pupil between the merged and the non-merged districts,” she said, summarizing her findings. 

In Vermont, lawmakers hoped school district mergers would streamline governance, improve educational outcomes and opportunities, and create cost efficiencies. 

Miller did find that merging reduced administrative costs — about $387 per pupil. Merging also reduced the costs of contracted services (such as part-time special ed help) by $2,169 per pupil, according to her analysis. 

Yet cost reductions were mostly nullified by increased spending elsewhere, Miller found, particularly on salaries, benefits and transportation. 

And overall, according to her analysis, merged districts saw a slight dip in tax rates in the first year following the merger, compared to non-merged districts, but there was no significant difference in tax rates after that. 

Understanding that her quantitative work could only go so far, Miller also sought to understand mergers qualitatively, interviewing superintendents and principals about their experiences. 

One effect Miller found was rhetorical. People began thinking about “our district” rather than “our school,” she said, which led to more equitable decision making across a district. 

But some school leaders said mergers, and with them, merged school boards, made “conversations more difficult” with more decision makers involved. Mergers also led to budgets with a higher overall dollar amount, which could lead to sticker shock for voters, even if spending per student didn’t actually rise. 

In one instance, two principals in the same district provided conflicting takes on whether or not their merger saved money, Miller found. 

“A lot of people just said merging did nothing,” she said. 

Regardless of individual opinions on mergers, Miller found that school and district leaders felt passionately, and were eager to talk in a year when school spending has dominated local and legislative conversations across the state. 

“Education finance is the conversation, and everyone has a lot to say,” she said.

As Miller began her senior year project, she said she was “shocked just how difficult it was” to procure data and find contacts for school leaders across the state. With the help of the Vermont Agency of Education, she received school district expenditure information from 2009-2023. 

Few people seemed to agree on the exact purpose of Vermont’s school district mergers, Miller said. 

“Everyone is on a different page, and the lack of quantitative data doesn’t help at all,” she argued.

And if an additional goal is to better student outcomes, Miller said further research will need to determine whether that has happened, starting with deciding what the best metrics are to measure those outcomes. 

Fresh off graduating this spring, Miller has moved to Tennessee, where she’ll work as a public school teacher. She said she hopes to do more work on education finance in the future — perhaps in graduate school — acknowledging that her work as an undergrad could only go so deep. 

Part of that drive to dig deeper comes from wanting a bigger library of research regarding Vermont’s education finance system, she said. The topic is, after all, personal to her. 

Going to school in the Northeast Kingdom’s North Country Supervisory Union, “We are very keenly aware of how the state and others interact with our district versus the others,” Miller said. 

North Country’s residents decided not to merge, leaving about a dozen individual school districts. That leads to increased local control, Miller ventured, but also a perhaps unwieldy web of districts.

“We do kind of have an insane system,” she said, “And I can see the thought process for trying to reorganize these educational governance structures.”