Art Woolf says EWSD merger economic ‘success’ owed to lost school choice, closing schools may be next

Essex Westford School District

Students wear masks in class at Essex High School.

By Jen Lannom | Community News Service

Despite fears that the merger of Essex, Essex Junction and Westford into one school district would unfairly allocate taxes, interviews and student success metrics show a unified district eases communication among schools, reduces overall spending and benefits students academically.

In 2017, the merger formed the Essex Westford School District. Students in these areas had long shared Essex High School as their primary high school, but the existence of multiple districts meant K-8 education was not consistent for all students.

Critics make their opinion heard

The merger was the first of its kind in Vermont, with a main goal of reducing spending, according to a 2015 Burlington Free Press article. The proposition claimed that over a five-year period, $1 million may be saved by the district, largely through the consolidation of central office workers, according to district data.

Opponents of the merger cited that eliminating staff would only account for about half of the savings. The remainder of the money would be saved by removing school choice from those in Westford.

“Today the parents of 40% of Westford’s high school students choose, for a variety of reasons, to send their high school students to Mt. Mansfield and BFA Fairfax high schools,” Art Woolf, a former professor of economics at UVM for 39 years, wrote in 2015 as the merger was considered. “The consolidated school district would save the tuition money that is now spent at those other schools.”

Woolf, like other critics, claimed these other high schools may face a burden as they lose the tuition of this influx of students.

Art Woolf

Economist Art Woolf

Since the merger, Woolf, a Westford resident of 37 years, has not grown any fonder of the idea. He cites the loss of school choice as the main reason for the district’s economic success, as the towns no longer must pay tuition for students who want to attend other schools.

“The question is, are there other economic effects and that’s particular to the towns,” Woolf said in a recent interview. “There’s evidence in the economics literature, for example, that people are willing to pay a premium for a house in a town with school choice,

“So to the extent that in my town, for example, in Westford consolidation, eliminated school choice, which meant that your house was essentially worthless after consolidation.”

Woolf believes the state of Vermont may end up consolidating schools, rather than districts, as it becomes more necessary for the state to save funds.

“The problem is there’s not enough money in the administrative budget of the state of Vermont, in terms of schools, education budget, to make any difference in reducing overall costs,” he said.

“It’s kind of like a husband and wife who both have kind of normal jobs. And they’re each driving a really expensive Mercedes Benz that costs them $600 a month for each car for a lease. And they’re struggling to pay their leases and their mortgage and all their other costs. They really like the Mercedes. And they say, oh, let’s have an idea. I know how we can save money, let’s carpool. And we can save $30 a month. The problem with their budget is not the fact that they’re not carpooling. The problem is they’re driving cars that are way too expensive for their family.”

Students weigh in

Many students seem unphased by the existence of the merger, saying it hasn’t affected affected their day to day schooling on a noticeable significant level.

Zoe Sheppard, a member of the EHS class of 2017, graduated right as the merger took place. While she doesn’t hold a strong opinion on the merger, she said she has heard vaguely of the conflict it may have caused.

“I think the community was somewhat split, but more people were leaning in favor of the merger,” Sheppard said. “Honestly, I can’t really remember. I asked my mom what she thought, and she said that she supported it and pooling resources makes sense. Our schools should be on the same page when our students funnel into the same high school. Vermont has too many supervisory unions and it’s a huge waste of money.”

Matt Wosky began school at EHS in 2017, just as the merger commenced. He has noticed little community response to the merger and doesn’t feel he has been largely affected by it either.

“My thoughts are impartial; if anything it’s probably a good thing to include more kids,” Wosky said. “But it really doesn’t seem like an issue for my position or for other kid’s positions. My parents feel the same way about it as me.”

Several other districts in Vermont would follow and merge similarly, with the Essex Westford district offering a playbook on how to do it quickly and efficiently, according to the Free Press article.

Many students seem unphased by the existence of the merger, saying it hasn’t affected affected their day to day schooling on a noticeable significant level.

Zoe Sheppard, a member of the EHS class of 2017, graduated right as the merger took place. While she doesn’t hold a strong opinion on the merger, she said she has heard vaguely of the conflict it may have caused.

“I think the community was somewhat split, but more people were leaning in favor of the merger,” Sheppard said. “Honestly, I can’t really remember. I asked my mom what she thought, and she said that she supported it and pooling resources makes sense. Our schools should be on the same page when our students funnel into the same high school. Vermont has too many supervisory unions and it’s a huge waste of money.”

Matt Wosky began school at EHS in 2017, just as the merger commenced. He has noticed little community response to the merger and doesn’t feel he has been largely affected by it either.

“My thoughts are impartial; if anything it’s probably a good thing to include more kids,” Wosky said. “But it really doesn’t seem like an issue for my position or for other kid’s positions. My parents feel the same way about it as me.”

Several other districts in Vermont would follow and merge similarly, with the Essex Westford district offering a playbook on how to do it quickly and efficiently, according to the Free Press article.

Merger increased communication

Linda Cloutier-Namdar, named the 2018 Vermont teacher of the year, has been at Essex High School since 2007. Cloutier-Namdar sees the strength of the merger in the added communication between districts.

“It was also an opportunity to really start the process of vertical teaming across all of the schools that eventually fed into the high school,” Cloutier-Namdar said.

Vertical teaming is the practice of establishing a team of different grade-level teachers in an academic area to communicate, cooperate, design curricular change and create support structures to encourage high achievement by all students, according to the Educator’s Voice textbook.

Cloutier-Namdar said the merger has allowed the district to take what’s working in each school and share that information with the larger district.

“I think in the long run, the idea is to really look at what each district is doing on the K-8 level and try to take the best of both of those districts and building something even better,” she said.

Cloutier-Namdar also said the combination of the teaching unions from the separate districts into one union representing all of the EWSD, allowed for greater communication among staff.

As a member of the union and someone who attends the executive board hearings, Cloutier-Namdar said the combination of both unions allowed for the best ideas in both to be shared.

“For example, the Essex educators union had a scholarship fund that they work to distribute for summer scholarships for students,” she said. “So we really have kind of taken that, that’s been absorbed into the new merged union. So even on that level, at a district-level certainly and administrative offices, but also at the union level. And so there are some real positives there.”

EWSD Superintendent Beth Cobb pointed out that there was a savings of over $4 million between fiscal years 18-21 as noted in this updated slide, using information from the district’s FY21 Annual Meeting presentation.

Education property taxes stay steady

Advocates of the merger cite Vermont’s per pupil spending, which is often significantly higher than the national average. In 2012, Essex and Essex Junction per pupil spending was about twice the national average, $16,064.08 and $15,635.87 respectively. Both districts now spend slightly more, over $18,000, but as per pupil spending has risen exponentially nationwide over the past few years, this change is minor by comparison.

Additionally, the spreading of the tax burden over the three communities has made education taxes less volatile, according to studies conducted by the district. Westford, which had been struggling to keep its local schools open, was propped up by the other districts as the merger commenced.

Essex, Essex Junction and Westford held similar education property tax rates with one another for about a decade, according to public record, meaning citizens likely did not notice a significant difference in taxing following the merger.

Since merger, more students attending college

While it is still early to recognize the academic effects of the merger, some statistics are looking up for the EWSD: the percentage of students going onto college.

Since the merger, a variety of factors could have influenced this shift: undeviating K-8 education setting students up for high school success, stronger union actions to improve the district, educational stability and the ability of the school to offer more AP courses.

The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.

Images courtesy of Essex Westford School District and Art Woolf
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3 thoughts on “Art Woolf says EWSD merger economic ‘success’ owed to lost school choice, closing schools may be next

  1. Jay, to back up your cost of per student figure, here’s an paragraph from a Jamaica news article informing about budgets. This is from The Jamaica Journal March 1, 2021

    School District Board seeks approval for its FY22 Budget
    The WRED Budget presented for FY2022 (July 1, 2021 – June 30, 2022) is $12,115,000 for Pre-Kindergarten – 12th grade at member schools (Leland & Gray HS/MS, Jamaica Village School, Townshend Elementary, and Newbrook Elementary.) The District Board approved this third draft budget at their January 19th meeting. The total budget is up less than 1% from the FY21 Budget of $12,035,000. If approved, it will result in spending of $22,844 per equalized pupil. In Jamaica, Claussen says this will translate into an estimated tax rate of $2.033.

    It’s getting so expensive to “educate”: the kids in public schools and the confiscated tax money to support makes it difficult to live in VT.

    • If the announced spending is $22,844 per ‘equalized pupil’, the cost per student is a lot higher per actual head count enrollments. Equalized Pupil enrollments typcially overstate actual enrollments about 12% higher than thet actually are.

  2. With all due respect to Mr. Woolf, with whom I usually agree, in this instance I must take several exceptions to his logic. There is no reasonable correlation with the circumstances surrounding one of the largest school districts in Vermont that can even remotely be similar to the schools in the rest of the State. Furthermore, the data in these citations are, for one thing, based on recondite documentation and misleading interpretations.

    For example, there is this typical circumstance in the Essex-Westford budget data.
    The annual report shows the following.
    Proposed Total Net Education Spending $63,626,750
    Equalized Pupil Full Time Equivalent Enrollment 3762.61 students
    Net Ed Spending/Equalized Pupil $16,910
    https://prezi.com/view/vycE4D3hYw6EER035H5A/

    But, according to the Vermont Agency of Education Dashboard, the actual head count of full time students in the Essex Westford district is 3499, not 3762. This means the actual cost per student is $18,184.

    Further, there are no fewer than 9 (perhaps 10) schools in the Essex Westford district that parents can choose.
    Albert D Lawton School 351
    Essex Community Education Center 1238
    Essex Elementary School 346
    Essex Middle School 438
    Founders Memorial School 341
    Hiawatha School 198
    Summit Street School 221
    Thomas Fleming School 202
    Westford Elementary School 164
    Total 3499

    None the less, the Essex Westford cost per student is one of the lowest in the State because the population density of the district is the highest in the State. In my local Windham Northeast Unified Elementary School District, for example, that was also recently merged, our cost per student (by actual head count) has ballooned to over $22,500 per student.

    The assertion that the loss of School Choice is the reason for the Essex Westford district’s economic success, because the towns no longer pay tuition for students who want to attend other schools, is a false dichotomy. Economies of scale in the realm of education in this instance fail to consider myriad related circumstances.

    For one, when students choose to leave one school to attend another, does not mean the school only ‘loses tuition dollars’. The school also loses the obligation and expense of educating that student as well. Never mind that there are 8 or 9 schools in the Essex Westford district from which parents can choose before their children reach the 9th grade. That’s called School Choice too.

    For another example, when a student is forced to attend a merged school program, the educational outcome is usually detrimental. Often, a student fails to learn grade level tasks and skills in early grades because the one-size-fits-all curriculum doesn’t address the individual child’s needs. The child falls behind, and, over a course of a couple of years, is often automatically coded as learning disabled and assigned an IEP that typically adds inordinate costs to the school district that would otherwise not have been necessary, had the early instruction been more individualized.

    Further, when a student chooses to leave a given school, the economy of scale does not necessarily add costs to the school losing the student. Whatever efficiency aspects are being addressed, that a student leaves a school is just as likely to cost the school less than more.

    And there is only a perfunctory reference in this article to the Essex Westford school’s past Smarter Balanced performance history. Suffice it to say, that 47% of Essex Westford high school students didn’t meet grade level proficiencies in the last reporting period, may or may not be an improvement over past years.

    Analysis of the State’s performance data indicates that the Essex Westford high school should be improving because the performance data in lower grades has been improving. That Essex Middle school students have improved their performance from only 39% meeting grade level proficiency 5 years ago, to 55% meeting the standard in the last reporting period, effectively eliminates any correlation to the Essex school district merger and improved academic performance. Of course, the Essex high school should see improvement to 47% meeting the standard. After all, 55% of the students entering the high school today already meet the standard.

    In comparison, that more than 60% of Vermont’s students as a whole don’t meet grade level standards, while only 47% of Essex Westford students don’t meet the standards, is , for example, because the Essex Westford district also has the highest average household income in the State.

    But none the less, as good as the comparison to the rest of Vermont may be, that only 47% of Essex Westford students meet the standard, when 90% of them graduate anyway, is nothing to write home about. Especially, when taxpayers are paying one of the highest per student costs in the country.

    Idaho, for example, uses the same Smarter Balanced Assessments and its students perform nearly as well as Vermont students. But while Vermont is spending, on average, in the neighborhood of $20,000 per student, Idaho is spending less than $8000 per student. Go figure.

    And lastly, that the merger hasn’t noticeably affected the majority of Essex Westford parents and students in this regard is to be expected. Again, in the Essex Westford district, parents already have significant choices in K-8 schools, and with high household incomes, parents already have the means to supplement their children’s education as they wish.

    School Choice is much more effective in smaller districts with lower average household incomes. With School Choice, costs typically decline because parents have far greater choices in the education programs that best meet their children’s needs than they otherwise have. And costs typically decline because the State’s ‘announced average tuition’ (approximately $15,700 per student for grades 7-12), that is provided as a voucher to the parents, is significantly less expensive than the traditional monopoly school currently available to them.

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