The message is clear: More and more Vermonters are unimpressed with the way we pay for schools. The day after 35 towns out of 246 municipalities threw out school budgets, giving a stern “F,” state leaders could only defend old positions or issue fresh calls for reform. A few were stunned; most had a “no-surprise-there” attitude. But one thing was obvious: Voters and lawmakers and policy makers in Montpelier were on parallel paths.
Vermont is the only state in the nation that has a statewide property tax system for funding K-12 public schools. The system was put in place in 1997 with the passage of Act 60.
Gov. Peter Shumlin summarized what happened Tuesday in this statement: “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 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.”
This year about 6 cents of the tax increase came from changes lawmakers and the administration made that eroded the Education Fund and transfer to the General Fund. The debate has been public, and lawmakers knew, even before the session began this fall, that this was one of the issues that was going to come up among voters on Town Meeting Day.
But voters also had visceral reactions in the voting booth, with increases in many school budgets of 6 to 30 percent. Those “nay” votes were clearly messages for local school boards. In several published reports the day after town meeting, some voters called the budgets put before them “insulting” and called on their elected officials to “go back and do your homework.”
In Vermont, education is a joint responsibility between local boards and the state. The state is responsible for setting the tax rate and distributing reimbursements for students statewide; it is up to local boards to ensure students get a good education for a reasonable amount of taxpayer dollars.
That tax formula has, once again, become a target.
Likewise, the budget rejections also give fuel to the debate reformists have for consolidating districts, especially as enrollments continue to decline statewide, by as much as 20 percent over the last 15 years according to the latest estimates. A plan on the table would bring the number of school districts down to about 30, and while it would take years to realize cost benefits, there would be savings, especially at administrative and supervisory levels. Plus, heating schools in nearly every Vermont town for six or eight months of the year is expensive to say the least.
Schools really are the trickiest balancing act to walk. There is a lot of conscience and emotion at play. Everyone wants students to get a good education, but they also don’t want to be pushed to a point where they can no longer afford to live in the community.
But voters will acquiesce when they feel due diligence has been done. Remember, nearly 220 towns passed their school budgets this week. About 20 communities will vote later in the year. And 35 will be voting on theirs again this spring.
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