It was bold, I thought, for some in the Legislature to admit they need “results-based accountability system training.” The $1.4 billion general fund spending plan voted out of the Senate Appropriations Committee includes $10,000 for just such training for lawmakers, and this particular investment is a wise one. Since continued increases in state expenditures that far outstrip our growth do real harm to our labor force and real incomes, prioritizing investments is crucial. Here is an example of education spending that may provide a big return on investment.
I have noted elsewhere why I think H.883 is bad policy, expensive, unguided and ill-planned, but the nature of the Legislature’s evaluation of this bill is worthy of our attention as well. The absence of results-based accountability is striking in this case.
Being accountable to justify sweeping reforms with actual results seems kind of basic to me. When the proposed reform would eliminate all local school districts and reduce school governance by upward of 90 percent, one would think some result-based accountability would be front and center. Yet H.883 passed out of three House committees without a single case study demonstrating improved outcomes, expanded opportunity and greater efficiency associated with the consolidated governance mandated in H.883. Not one.
Consolidated districts may have more program offerings than many smaller districts, but the truth is their total resources are far in excess of what many other districts have, courtesy of our warped funding system. The significant heights of their actual spending are obscured through the complicated funding formula, but variances in resources, currently over 300 percent, have a lot to do with the spectrum of opportunity across our state. As for the foretold superior outcomes and efficiency, those results are simply not in evidence.
As we scan the horizon for case studies among our consolidated districts, we do find one interesting example that meets the target guidelines of H.883 and is in the home turf of the House Education Committee chairwoman, who is driving H.883 as if it were the be-all, end-all for quality education in Vermont. Alas, her consolidated district is hardly a case study for what we would seek to emulate.
As reported by the Burlington Free Press, the Burlington School District is under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service for nonpayment of payroll taxes — something that can land a business owner in serious hot water. In addition, revelations of its many years of unreported deficits are just now being unraveled — deficits in excess of $1 million and the total expenditures of many districts. The excuse offered for not reporting deficits was that the board mistakenly built new budgets off prior year budgets instead of actual expenditures. Ironically, the superintendent overseeing this Burlington School District morass testified in support of H.883 before the attentive House Education and House Ways and Means committee members. I put her testimony in the “why H.883 is a bad idea” column.
Another notable absence of results-based accountability as concerns H.883 is the total pass the Agency of Education is getting for providing no meaningful analysis on education equity, access to opportunities or efficiency to guide consolidation. Despite the agency’s failure to provide any information to effectively prioritize education investments, legislators earmarked more staff for the agency to oversee elimination of all local school districts and design new regional boards — a move the agency is strongly behind.
When asked by one legislator on House Appropriations why the agency feels it needs to hire still more resources to tackle this work, the chief financial officer of the agency wasn’t required to answer. The chairwoman of House Appropriations answered for him that since many constituents have complained about the agency not being responsive to them, the agency clearly needed more staff. Through the lens of results-based accountability, one might not want to jump to that particular conclusion, but ask some questions. One might ask, “Is anybody at the Agency of Education held accountable to return calls from citizens of Vermont?” Or “Does the Agency of Education have a policy to return calls on the same day or within 24 hours?”
Another salient question is, “What are the 155 employees that cost taxpayers over $400,000 per current supervisory union and supervisory district doing instead of this crucial work?” This seems very relevant with expenditures at the agency up more than 10 percent this year and planned for more than 9 percent next year despite, as they so often point out, a serious decline in student populations.
Backers outside of the Agency of Education, Vermont Superintendents Association and Legislature clearly support the bill due to a desire to improve education. But who doesn’t support greater quality, equity and efficiency in education? The question before our Legislature is not one of aspiration. Aspiration doesn’t cut it when it comes to governance; results-based accountability systems do.
So I say bump up that budget for legislator training. Make it mandatory for them all. Accountability isn’t a “nice to have,” it is a necessity, if we want to invest across all our priorities and not see more of our aspiring workers and taxpayers departing for more opportunity-rich and affordable pastures.
Heidi Spear is a school board member from Fayston.
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