• Taming the cost of education in Vt.
     | March 10,2013

    MONTPELIER — As school budgets continue an upward trend that has seen the cost of public education nearly double since 2001, lawmakers are looking for new ways to help local boards finally bend the curve.

    In all but 16 of the 244 school districts that saw budget votes Tuesday, voters said “yes’ to education spending that will rise on average by 5.3 percent. The figures will bring statewide spending on public education to $1.44 billion in fiscal year 2014 — almost a third of all government spending in Vermont.

    Increases over the past decade have come despite nearly a 20 percent decline in the student population, which has fallen from about 104,000 in 2001 to 85,000 today. And while the Democrats who control both the executive and legislative branches continue to preach the importance of local control, lawmakers have begun contemplating policies aimed at bending upward spending trajectories in the state’s 307 schools.

    Asked whether the Legislature should assume a more hands-on role in containing local education costs, House Speaker Shap Smith said he isn’t sure.

    “I don’t think that we know at this point in time whether that should be our role, and if it is our role, what we would do to bend the cost of education,” Smith said.

    But he left open the door to the possibility of a more intensive effort at cost containment than Montpelier has undertaken in years past.

    “If what we did would improve the quality of the schools, then I think it would be appropriate for us to have a heavier hand,” Smith said last week.

    Smith isn’t the only prominent lawmaker voicing a willingness to consider heightened legislative intervention in local spending decisions.

    The House committees that focus on the budget, taxes and education convened a rare three-committee hearing last week to “brainstorm” potential cost-cutting maneuvers. Every member of each committee was asked to throw out ideas they’d like to explore.

    Rep. Martha Heath, a Westford Democrat and chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations, said she’s interested in looking for ways to address a staff-to-student ratio that, at about 10-to-1, is lower than any state in the nation.

    The ratio is one of the main reasons that Vermont’s per-pupil spending — $17,400 as of 2011, according to a report commissioned by the Legislature — is third-highest in the country. Heath said she’s also interested in finding ways to promote a statewide teacher contract.

    “I want this body to explore those two ideas and the potential for us to encourage those ideas,” Heath said.

    Rep. Adam Greshin, a Warren Independent, said the portion of school spending dedicated to salaries and benefits means that any discussion about cost must necessarily focus on staffing levels.

    “The reality is that something between 70 and 80 percent of our costs are labor-related,” Greshin said. “So there’s no way we can reduce costs without looking at that.”

    Other lawmakers pressed for reforms to the state’s notoriously complicated school-funding system, in which the lion’s share of revenue for local school budgets is collected via a statewide property tax. Critics say the system, created when lawmakers passed Act 60 in 1997, disconnects local voters from the financial consequences of their spending decisions.

    Concern over the rising education costs isn’t new in Montpelier, and it always tends to peak around Town Meeting Day. Gov. Peter Shumlin has sounded the alarm over rapidly increasing education costs, but said responsibility for fixing the problem lies with local school boards, and the voters whose approval they need to pass budgets.

    Unlike his Republican predecessor, Gov. James Douglas, Shumlin says Montpelier should resist the urge to impose spending or staffing mandates on local districts.

    Shumlin said he supports some of the measures under consideration this year, including the elimination of a “small-schools grant” that, some lawmakers argue, provides a financial disincentive to consolidation.

    Lawmakers are also considering tweaks to the school-funding formula, including harsher penalties for per-pupil spending that exceeds the statewide average.

    But so long as the Legislature respects the sovereignty of local districts, Shumlin said, none of the legislative initiatives will stem the rising tide of costs.

    “I don’t want to pretend that any of them will make a big difference in the rates that are being determined by local decisions and local spending,” Shumlin said last month. “There can’t be a school board member in Vermont that doesn’t understand that the current rate of growth is not sustainable, and that we have to have conversations locally about how we can more efficiently deliver a great education in Vermont in a more affordable way for taxpayers.”

    The extent to which lawmakers opt to insinuate themselves in that local process remains to be seen. Heath said the brainstorming session was the beginning of a process that may or may not yield new legislation.

    “We need to decide on a process for how we winnow those (ideas) down to things that we think are doable,” Heath said. “We’re headed in that direction, but we’re not there yet.”

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