Cooperative Education Services (H.630) - April 2, 2024

The Senate Education Committee reviewed H.630 on Tuesday. Chairman Campion requested a primer for “those of us who have not followed the bill” and what the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) is attempting solve or improve.

Representative Buss reviewed the bill with them, which allows Supervisory Unions to form agreements with each other to bulk purchase supplies or services.

Senator Hashim asked what the BOCES participants can do that any school districts cannot do now? Buss gave an example of a full-time staff person Arts or Special Ed services. The BOCES can be the public employer, offer full-time services and benefits, and then then farm out those services regionally.

NOTE: Supervisory Unions can do this today. The problem is that there are 52 of them and they are small (most school districts in other states are larger than our supervisory unions) so they don’t have much buying power. This was likely proposed by the Superintendents Association as a way to divert attention away from consolidation of Supervisory Unions.

Buss provided an extended anecdote about her own school district and the cost savings as well as the regional cooperation for special education.

Campion questioned the need for this legislation if districts and Supervisory Unions are free to contract for services now? Buss answered that the existing Articles Agreement minimum requirements are restrictive in what can be accomplished.

Senator Weeks wondered who BOCES report to. The answer was unclear, but Campion followed by asking if this would discourage mergers in the future. Buss thought that it may allow some smaller school districts to see the benefits of larger scale systems which could impact opinions of mergers in either direction.

Senator Gulick asked the unsaid question, which is “why not just go directly to having fewer school districts” with less overhead. Buss didn’t think they could muster the “political will that will be needed towards that” and this offered this as a path now towards collaboration and cost savings.

Weeks wondered if some of the BOCES might specialize, for example some focusing on procurement, others on special education services, etc. Buss thought it could be both because with each new service the BOCES Board will have to wrestle with business-like decisions as to whether competition or duplication is still valuable and efficient.  “They will be in literal business competition now, so a new flavor in the educational realms.”

NOTE: Not new in Vermont, the town tuitioning program incentivizes this sort of business mindset as public schools compete for students. However this is only covers a small percentage of students so it’s not a widespread phenomenon.

Legislative Counsel walked through the bill for them. Several things were noted during this, including:

  • Supervisory unions are allowed to enter into joint agreements under current law, but school districts are now. The bill changes that.
  • This structure could be used for bussing and might even allow independent schools to participate.
  • Better definition of “benefit to state” and “benefit to students” is needed as the terms are too vague in the current language.
  • Because BOCES will have member districts, they can charge member fees but also higher non-member fees for services.
  • BOCES, like Supervisory Unions, will be required to adhere to a Universal Chart of Accounts.

Weeks asked whether these are a path to “Super Unions.” He supports this as a direction but wondered if it didn’t go far enough. Campion wondered whether the Agency of Education (AOE) can serve in some of these areas.

Buss noted that AOE spoke with them about teaching modules at the AOE website, whether “coaching” was available to enhance their training role. AOE does not do that currently, so a BOCES could fulfill a “Professional Development” sector. Campion appreciated that when a BOCES offers the services across regions, duplication can be avoided and might provide efficiency in development.

Gulick offered an idea about a BOCES for the entire state, saying it was an “interesting thought.” Years ago, they considered an literacy program statewide (roughly $23M as she recalled) and the argument was that it was too expensive and stalled. She wondered if a statewide BOCES would bump up against the same issue?

Weeks commented that “Given the environment of the property tax issue and Education Fund, I find it very refreshing we are talking about efficiencies, and saving money, and not where to spend new taxes.” Senator Williams agreed, saying “It’s the beginning of a good plan… and vision for education in Vermont.”

Weeks is conflicted about whether to support this versus the significant consolidation of Supervisory Unions. He worried that BOCES could become another “bureaucratic layer” instead of gaining efficiencies of scale. Legislative Counsel pointed that that “As of 2021, Vermont was one of approximately nine states that did not have an established system of cooperative educational service agencies.”

Gulick suggested that the “political will” is not there to follow Weeks’ ideas about consolidations. She believed that Act 46 showed that the effectiveness of consolidation is dubious. Weeks reiterated that his ideas are consolidation of Supervisory Unions and not schools themselves. Administration and sourcing supplies and services is not the same as closing and combing schools.

Campion agreed that whether seven smaller ones or a single big BOCES is a great question.

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