• Paying for education
    December 05,2012

    State officials have sounded the warning that the state education tax rate will rise in the coming year unless towns vote to contain their school budgets. It’s like telling us we’ll get wet if it rains.

    The reason for the warning is that state officials have the job of setting the tax rate but don’t have power over whether education spending goes up or down. That power belongs to the voters. So state officials, including the governor, are eager for us to know it’s not their fault if taxes go up. It’s ours.

    A variety of cost pressures is conspiring to force up education costs this year. These include teachers contracts that have already been negotiated, as well as health care costs for school personnel, which are expected to rise by about 14 percent. Special education costs are expected to increase by about 7 percent, and ordinary inflationary pressures are forcing up costs by about 2 percent.

    Add to these higher costs a decline in property values, and tax rates can be expected to rise. If falling property values have resulted in a lower appraisal of one’s home, then the effect of the higher rate may be partly offset by a lower home value. But grand lists don’t necessarily reflect fluctuating home values.

    These higher costs, most of them unavoidable, are likely to put voters on notice that they should not be extravagant with their school budgets. Ordinarily, voters don’t need lectures from the governor to enforce appropriate austerity on school boards. Vermont has a long tradition of ornery taxpayers who, when pressed, are willing to hold the line on spending in tough times.

    The higher education costs come as student enrollment continues to decline, which creates an added incentive to hold down costs. If there are fewer students, then school officials understand, first of all, they will be getting less in per-pupil reimbursement from the state and, second, they may not need to spend as much to teach a smaller student body.

    But the difficulty of achieving savings in response to the shrinking number of students can be seen in the numbers for the coming fiscal year. The total of students in the state is expected to drop by 670. If all those students were to disappear from one school, then the school could do without a sizable number of teachers. A 20-to-1 ratio would suggest the elimination of 33 teachers, saving big money.

    But if that diminishing number of students is coming from schools throughout Vermont, that means two or three or four students per school. A decline of that sort does not necessarily justify the elimination of a teacher.

    Vermont’s schools are smaller than schools in most states owing to the state’s geography and demographics: numerous small towns, most of which have their own little schools. The school is often central to the community identity of a town, and calls to consolidate to save money generally run up against stout resistance from local citizens eager to hold onto their own schools and school budgets.

    From the point of view of the Montpelier education official or politician, it makes sense to seek efficiencies through consolidation. They have a view of the big picture. From the point of view of townspeople in towns such as Sudbury, Leicester or Whiting, which have wrestled with the issue, it’s not such an easy call.

    Gov. Peter Shumlin, mercifully, has eased up on the hectoring of local schools and voters, but he still has an interest in convincing voters it’s not his fault if the state education tax rate goes up. Voters know that. They will be subjecting their school budgets to close scrutiny, as they always have, because they know it’s the best way to keep school costs under control.

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