• ‘Support’ is driving budgets
    March 10,2014

    College isn’t cheap. In fact, college tuition is climbing at record rates.

    However, sending a child to a Vermont state college costs about the same as sending him or her to the local elementary school. Is it any wonder that a near-record number of school budgets were rejected by voters?

    Gov. Peter Shumlin says the rejections show local control over budgets is “alive and well.” Legislators are moved toward changing the state funding formula, and the education secretary seeks consolidation of school districts for greater efficiency.

    Unfortunately, local control is a myth. Spending, not funding, is the problem, and district consolidations won’t scratch the surface of runaway budgets.

    “Support” is the costdriver, and local boards are largely at the mercy of the Agency of Education and the Legislature when it comes to the mandates to provide “support.”

    The number of support professionals and staff in elementary and secondary schools is increasing far more rapidly than the number of students or teachers. The combination of behavior interventionists, aides, social workers and special services providers may cost as much as a school’s classroom teachers, and their numbers are increasing as teaching positions are trimmed.

    Why? Because support staffing is mandated. Students who don’t behave are not removed from the classroom, they are “supported.” A team of professionals determines the level of support the student needs, the school is obliged to provide it, and the local board puts the cost in the budget because it has no choice.

    If the budget is defeated, academic costs may be cut, but support costs are protected expenditures.

    Behavioral intervention may be a legitimate state expenditure, but if so, it should be absorbed by state agencies, not shifted to local school budgets.

    The state’s generosity in providing medical care shifted costs to private carriers until insurance was no longer affordable.

    The state’s generosity in mandating behavioral support and special services is shifting costs to local schools, and voters are signaling that their public schools are no longer affordable.

    George Malek is executive director of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

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