Vermonters defeated a near-record number of school budgets at town meeting, leaving some to ponder the message and others to argue it’s a sign for the need to reform the education funding system.
Of the 253 school budgets acted on either by ballot or floor vote in recent days, 35 went down in defeat, one of the highest numbers in recent years.
“It’s a high number, but it’s not unheard of,” said Stephen Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, which tracks data from across the state.
According to Dale, in the years since the adoption of Act 60 and Act 68 — which created the state’s current education funding formula — it has been common for budget defeats in Vermont to average “in the high teens.” He said 22 school budgets were defeated at town meeting last year and a high of 42 defeated at town meeting in 2003.
This year, voters rejected school budgets from Bennington to Burlington, including defeats in Brandon and Rutland City, as well as budgets for Spaulding High School and the Montpelier School District.
Frustration over rising property taxes led to the budget defeats, Gov. Peter Shumlin said in a statement Wednesday.
“As we saw in communities throughout Vermont on Town Meeting Day, local control over school budgets is alive and well,” Shumlin said. “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.”
While local school boards — and local voters — have control over their budgets, how much control they have over what education will actually cost in property taxes is open to debate.
For the second year in a row, the state Legislature has proposed increasing the homestead tax rate, this time from 94 cents to $1.01 for every $100 in assessed value — a tax increase of $70 on a $100,000 home.
The Legislature has not approved the increase, but if it does, it will follow a 5-cent increase approved last year.
The proposal left many towns looking at tax increases that appeared disproportionately high when compared to the increase in the budget itself.
Dale discussed trends he saw among the recently defeated budgets.
“In about half the instances, the budgets were quite high,” said Dale, who described “high” as a budget with an increase ranging from 6 percent to 32 percent. “The other half had budgets that were only increasing 2 or 3 percent, or in some cases, less than that.”
Voters in Underhill, for example, defeated a proposed budget with a 3 percent decrease.
On average, proposed budgets across Vermont came in with a 3 percent increase, Dale said.
And having a decreased budget is no guarantee against higher taxes. In Rutland Town, voters approved a budget with a 2.5-percent decrease, lower than both the current budget and the budget adopted in 2012.
Even so, Rutland Town residential property owners are looking at a 5.5-cent increase in taxes to pay for education.
Some members of the Legislature are looking at the latest round of budget defeats as a sign the education funding formula needs to be overhauled.
“I think they are voting down the budgets because they see a disconnect between education costs and what they’re paying in taxes,” said Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset. “The governor is blaming the towns, but really, a lot of these towns that voted down their budgets had budgets with small increases.”
Komline and Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, have started an online petition, advocating for the repeal of the current education funding formula by 2016 and create a new system for the 2016-17 school year.
“It’s really frustrating to see these communities defeat their school budgets,” Scheuermann said. “To see the effect this state policy has on communities is painful to watch.”
She added, “I’ve never been one to advocate for voting down a school budget to send a message to Montpelier, but I think these defeats are supposed to send that message.”
The online petition, launched Sunday, had nearly 600 signatures by Wednesday evening.
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