• What now for Montpelier schools?
    April 05,2014

    Was this year’s voter rejection of Montpelier’s school budget a fluke?

    Baby boomers — that outsized cohort born from 1946 through 1964 — have continually reshaped American society.

    They moved to Vermont in large numbers during the 1960s and early 1970s.This influx plus Vermont’s homegrown boomers brought about the creation of several regional schools, including the U-32 middle and high school.

    Prior to U-32, Montpelier educated children in these grades from surrounding towns. Montpelier could have merged with U-32, but decided to go it alone. And without the students from other towns, Montpelier High School enrollment dropped in 1971 by one-third, from 890 to 578.

    At the time, this reduction was seen as temporary. Montpelier high school enrollment was projected to grow and by the end of the 1970s reach 800. That never happened.

    By the mid-1970s, Vermont’s recent population growth from in-migration had abated, no doubt because of the economic downturn of that decade.

    Montpelier’s total population declined between 1970 and 2010 by 9 percent. But more striking was the declining share of the city’s population in the age group of 24 and under, which as shown in the table with this article, went from 45 percent of the total in 1970 to 25 percent in 2010.

    Montpelier’s total enrollment in all schools declined apace, by 46 percent during the four decades.Total enrollments were 1,725 in the 1970-71 school year (after subtracting students scheduled to transfer to U-32), 1,255 in 1990-91, and 923 in 2010-11 (using the number of total “enrolled” students in 2010-11, not “equalized pupils”).

    But Montpelier’s school budgets followed a different pattern.

    After adjusting for inflation, the school budgets approved annually by voters increased from 1970 to 1990 by eight percent, and from 1990 to 2010 by 66 percent. In 2013 dollar values, the amounts were $9,292,692 in 1970 (discounted for U-32 transfers), $10,016,610 in 1990, and $16,642,414 in 2010.

    Underlying larger budget amounts was a rising average cost per-student (budget amount divided by total enrollment): a 48 percent increase from the 1970-71 school year to 1990-91, and a 126 percent increase from 1990-91 to 2010-11. In 2013 dollar values, the per-student costs were $5,386 in 1970-71, $7,981 in 1990-91, and $18,031 in 2010-11.

    Today when people consider a single year’s school budget increase, some have said, it’s only a small amount, and because we value education so highly, why worry about spending a little more? I think the answer is obvious from the above figures. Little plus little, plus a little more, adds up to big.

    My children were in Montpelier schools from 1969 through 1996. My family is very grateful for the experience. The adult lives of my children, and of many of their Montpelier peers, are proof of the high quality of our schools during that time.

    But because of that positive experience, I find it impossible to believe that Montpelier schools today are 126 percent better — the increased average cost per-student from 1990-91 to 2010-11, over and above general price inflation during that period.

    Nor do I believe rejection of the school budget this year was a fluke.

    Rather, I attribute it in no small measure to the aging of baby boomers. As seen in the table, people in the two age groups of 45 and over combined, increased from 35 percent of Montpelier’s total population in 1970, to 48 percent in 2010. The oldest boomers are just now passing the age 65 mark, with the rest right behind. More people in these age groups are reaching the end of their prime income-producing years. Or are beyond producing any income at all. And with retirement savings trampled during the financial debacles of the past 15 years. Even if some still have adequate savings to live on, for now, many of us still wonder if our savings will last until we die.

    Even retirees with so-called “guaranteed” pensions (including former public employees), if they are paying attention, have got to have their doubts.

    And to say that “income sensitivity” will take care of us old people begs the question of who is going to pay for it, as we old people relentlessly increase in number?

    To me it is only rational to want our school board to do better. And to become truly prudent — to reclaim that once revered Vermont virtue.

    When the state education board approved the creation of U-32, it stipulated that U-32 and Montpelier cooperate when needed for the success of both systems. As I consider the fact that Montpelier today employs one teacher for every nine students enrolled in both middle and high school, I wonder, could the time for that be now?

    Data sources: For inflation adjustments, U.S. Consumer Price Index, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For population figures, U.S. Census Bureau. For U-32 history, Montpelier voter- approved school budgets, and 1970-71 and 2010-11 school enrollments, City of Montpelier annual reports. For 1990-91 school enrollment, Office of Montpelier School Superintendent.

    Ben Huffman lives in Montpelier.

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