• What makes a city vibrant, alive?
    April 12,2014

    On Town Meeting Day, Montpelier voters narrowly voted down our school budget while overwhelmingly approving our municipal one. Misinformation is probably the culprit for this paradox but, whatever the reason, we Capital City residents should resume supporting our schools before we jeopardize what truly makes us vibrant and alive.

    Last year, U.S. News & World Report ranked our high school No. 1 in Vermont and in the top 2 percent nationally. If “selective” public high schools (ones that cherry pick top students) are excluded from the list, the ranking of Montpelier High School, which serves all students, would be even more impressive. Furthermore, as a parent of Union Elementary School students, I’ve just seen the new NECAP assessment, and it shows that 33 percent of the third-graders at our elementary school achieved “distinction,” the highest mark, in both math and reading, whereas the statewide average for “distinction” in those subjects was 17 percent and 19 percent, respectively. In other words, our schools, the reason so many of us want to live here, are exemplary.

    You might expect our school costs to be high, given these extraordinary results. But they’re not. Our spending per student comes in the bottom half of similarly situated Vermont municipalities. Our state education department reports that per-pupil spending for municipalities that operate public K-12 schools is $17,890, while Montpelier’s, before the new cuts, was only $17,410. Our schools spend less than the state average and perform far above it. We enjoy a big bang for our education buck. In business, this would be cause for celebration.

    So, why did a slight majority object?

    My hunch is that many of us believed, mistakenly, that the recent spike in the school tax rate reflected a corresponding spike in the school budget. In fact, our school board proposed only a 2 percent increase in its budget. The headlines about a 13 percent increase in the tax rate reflected decisions by the state, not our schools. Few people are fans of tax hikes, of course, but why blame our schools over what the state did?

    That’s especially true, I’d suggest, because the state caps taxes for households earning less than $105,000 annually. Last year, 520 of 1,230 tax-paying homes in Montpelier, a whopping 42 percent of us, received help, and the state confirms that, last year, that help was an average of 62.2 percent relief on our school taxes.

    So, many of the voters in Montpelier have another reason not to vent their frustrations on our efficient schools: They won’t have to pay more, in any event, given the cap.

    Now, I know, many of us still feel stressed about taxes, and some of us just want smaller government. But for those of us who fall in one of those camps, why would the first target be the school budget when it is our municipal budget that is among the highest in the state? In 2013, Montpelier had the 11th highest municipal tax rate of 257 cities and towns in Vermont. That’s right, for those of us who are concerned about spending or high taxes, Montpelier spends more on its municipal budget than 96 percent of the other cities and towns in our state, while we spend less than 50 percent of them on schools. And unlike the school budget, which state law caps for those making less than $105,000, there is no such protection provided by the state against high municipal taxes. Everyone has to pay those taxes in full.

    It’s worth noting, too, that our school budget serves only the 8,000 who actually live in the city, whereas our municipal budget is sized for the additional 10,000 to 20,000 people who work and play in our nice downtown but live, and pay taxes, elsewhere. We’re objecting to the one budget that benefits just us.

    What makes “taking a stand” against our school budget all the more inexplicable is that, on the municipal side, we’re on a spending spree. We’re building bike paths, developing a new transportation center and park on the Carr Lot and, most notably, ripping up the downtown streets so we may heat downtown buildings through the state’s wood plant.

    As for that last item, the district heating project, The Times Argus just reported that the state says its cost overruns should now cost the 8,000 of us who live here almost $600,000 more than anticipated, and that’s just what the state says we must pay for the state’s overruns. I still haven’t heard what overruns we ourselves have incurred in the project, but stay tuned. Can we really be so parsimonious with our school budget while letting that sort of largesse slide by?

    What’s especially disappointing about our reaction to our school budget given the profligacy of our spending on the district heating project, in particular, is that it was sold to us as a way of cheaply heating our schools. But since then, the project has been scaled back to serve only the elementary school, leaving the middle and high schools to buy expensive oil, making it more difficult to cut the budgets there. That decision to scale back was a municipal decision, not a school decision. So why blame the schools?

    It may seem otherwise, but my point here isn’t to assess the municipal budget. It is about the contrast and hypocrisy. If enough of us 8,000 Montpelier residents really have such a beef about spending that we feel the need to reject something, why start with our fantastically performing, efficient public schools? Why take it out on our kids, who don’t get to vote? If we must tighten our belts, shouldn’t we look first to our “fat” municipal budget and our insatiable desire of late to fund expensive nonessential projects?

    Montpelier has a nice downtown, the source of so much municipal focus that sometimes I feel like we residents of the city are but “life-support systems” for our businesses. But we should not forget that the most fundamental infrastructure of any city, of any society, is its education system. Unlike great schools, nice downtowns are not uncommon. And it is our great schools that are our true draw, for those who actually live here, something to be enhanced, not dismantled.

    So, please support our schools. Let’s not further compromise what really makes Montpelier vibrant and alive — its educated citizenry.

    Christopher Smart is a Montpelier resident and former city councilor.

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