School budgets symptom, not cause of the problem
Mar 07, 2014 | 4220 views | 0 0 comments | 293 293 recommendations | email to a friend | print
At Town Meetings around the valley and across the state, some of the most discussed items were school budgets and their effects on local and statewide property taxes. Suffice it to say that those discussions were not all warm and fuzzy in their support of those budgets, or of the systems we have in Vermont to pay for them.

Across the state, voters in 34 towns rejected their local school budgets, the most in any year since 2003. What is significant about that? It was later in 2003 that the legislature approved Act 68, the current education funding law, the one that replaced Act 60. While at the time, Act 68 seemed to be a better fix than Act 60, the complications of the funding mechanism continue to confuse voters and local officials to this day, more than a decade later.

At the beginning of the year, Gov. Peter Shumlin urged voters to carefully scrutinize their school budgets at Town Meeting. Why? Because he feels that school costs are out of control, which in turn are leading to higher and higher property taxes.

In a press release this week, Shumlin said “As we saw in communities throughout Vermont on Town Meeting Day, local control over school budgets is alive and well. Vermonters are clearly frustrated by high spending, high property taxes, and the complexity of the statewide education funding system. In a number of communities, voters scrutinized their budgets and per pupil school spending, and asked school boards to go back and make adjustments. Vermonters know that their property taxes are too high and expect action to reflect that concern, locally and at the state level. We are all in this together, and in Montpelier we will redouble efforts to improve the system to get better outcomes for our kids at a lower cost.”

Conveniently, Shumlin left out one of the major factors contributing to those high property taxes, the underfunding of the statewide education fund. A variety of revenue streams comprise the education fund. Statewide property taxes are only part of the mix. Contributions also come from the Vermont Lottery and the state’s general fund. In the past few years, the legislature and the governor has reduced the amount of contribution from the general fund to the education fund. That, in turn, has been a major contributor to the increases in the statewide property tax rate, the very one established under Act 60 and strengthened under Act 68.

Locally, state legislators told voters at Town Meetings that something had to be done to control property taxes.

We agree with that sentiment. What we don’t necessarily agree with are some of the ideas being bandied about in Montpelier. The idea that appears to be gaining the most traction would consolidate school districts across the state. Even the most ardent supporters of that idea say savings would be marginal at best. What is will consolidate of power over schools, at the regional and state level. To a rural regions such as the Deerfield Valley, that would have dire implications. Local control would be stripped away, and decisions would be made by a regional school board dominated by the big towns in the region.

That is a shame, especially when we have some of the highest performing schools in the state, along with moderate per-pupil costs. Rather than a top-down approach, as is the current vogue in the Statehouse, we agree with the bottom up model being advocated by local representatives Ann Manwaring and John Moran. Look at what works in high performing schools, and then apply those ideas across the state.

Dover voters reaffirmed their support for continuing the town’s lobbying efforts in Montpelier. That approach has centered on pressing lawmakers to look beyond the funding mechanisms of education and press for outcome results, something that is often overlooked. Legislators tend to be quick to throw money at problems, without following up to verify the results of those expenditures.

Too often in Montpelier, politicians tend to support what is trendy, rather than looking at the root causes of a problem. We feel that is certainly the case with the some of the education reforms currently underway at the Statehouse.

We also believe that ultimately it will take more than voters turning down school budgets to affect change. It will take voters turning politicians out of office, especially those who are in statewide positions. That is the one thing that will truly get Montpelier’s attention.
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