By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Leaders of Gov. James Douglas’s hometown school board on Tuesday pulled no punches in panning the Middlebury Republican’s recent request that communities freeze their per-pupil education spending levels for next year.
Adhering to Douglas’s proposed spending freeze would force UD-3 directors to make $750,000 in cuts to a $15.2 million budget for 2009-2010 that reflects a 3.4 percent increase from this year. More than half of the increase ($280,000) is associated with a one-time shift of transportation expenses from the Addison Central Supervisory Union’s (ACSU) elementary schools to the UD-3 ledger. That transfer was made in order for the ACSU to conform to state law.
“For the governor to assume that all schools can experience this kind of reduction without affecting the education students receive is pure folly,” said ACSU Superintendent Lee Sease.
Douglas made his request earlier this month at a time when many school districts — including the ACSU — had already approved their budgets for the Town Meeting Day warning. School directors have argued that financial issues aside, they are at a point on the calendar where reopening school budgets for re-jiggering would result in missed deadlines for Town Meeting Day votes. And school leaders have also voiced concern that the governor has requested the spending freeze as an interim measure to carry the state to a new education finance system (to replace Act 68) that has yet to be devised.
“For us to have already had a budget put in place and for him to ask us to take another look at what we’re doing here, I think is wrong,” said UD-3 board member Leonard Barrett of Bridport. “I think it’s bad timing, I think we should leave this alone until town meeting, let the voters make that decision.”
Board member Devin McLaughlin of Middlebury agreed.
“I think the governor is trying to sidestep the political process and ask us to do something when we don’t know how the political process is going to work out,” McLaughlin said. “He’s obviously got an agenda, other folks have a different agenda, and we’ll see what happens with that, but now is not the right time to have this discussion.”
Douglas’s complete three-point plan specifically calls for:
• Level funding of local education spending in each school district at fiscal year 2009 levels on a per-pupil basis.
• Level funding of education categorical grants at fiscal year 2009 levels.
• Eliminating eligibility for property tax adjustments for households with incomes greater that $75,000.
Douglas contends his plan will give residential property taxpayers a $20 million property tax cut while generating an operating surplus of $69.5 million in the state’s education fund. That surplus, combined with an estimated $18.3 million surplus in fiscal year 2009, could be used, according to the governor, to reduce statewide property taxes by $24.8 million; allow the education fund to support the annual contribution to the teachers’ retirement fund (now supported by the general fund); and allow the state to funnel more resources to higher education.
Douglas has taken aim at education spending in view of a potential general fund deficit that could swell to $193 million next fiscal year, and in light of a trend of school budgets growing even as enrollments are declining.
The Vermont Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor, endorsed Douglas’s proposal on Tuesday.
But opponents of the governor’s plan have argued that it will simply take more of the school financing burden off of the general fund and transfer it onto the education fund — and therefore, onto local property taxpayers.
“All I’m seeing here is a cost-shift from a statewide property tax to local property taxes,” board member Peter Conlon of Cornwall said.
Officials noted some help may soon be on the way from the federal government.
Board member Marie Kireker of Weybridge said on Tuesday she had been told by representatives of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. that Vermont is in line to receive between $75 million to $125 million, over two years, in education-related federal stimulus money through legislation being drafted in the Senate.
“(The Senate) has every intention of getting that bill out by President’s Day,” Kireker said, alluding to Feb. 16. “They want to be sure the towns don’t have to cut by Town Meeting Day.”
Without federal assistance, school officials from throughout Addison County said that meeting Douglas’s request would mean elimination of entire programs.
Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Business Manager Kathleen Cannon said meeting the Douglas directive would mean slashing $515,000 from a proposed 2009-2010 Vergennes Union High School spending plan of $9,451,000.
Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Bill Mathis said Otter Valley Union High School directors would have to cut a “couple hundred thousand dollars” from a spending plan of around $11.1 million that reflects a 0.9 percent increase compared to this year.
“It’s the wrong way to go about trying to effect the economy,” Mathis said of Douglas’s proposal.
“It comes awfully late in the game.”
The Mount Abraham Union High School board approved a $12.8 million spending plan on Jan. 20, marking a 0.87-percent decrease in total spending at the high school.
The spending plan comes in with a 2.07 percent increase in per-pupil spending because of a projected drop of roughly 35 students in the next school year.
Perry Lessing, a Weybridge resident, parent and teacher in the ACSU, said he believes the governor’s latest education funding request follows a concerning trend.
“The governor has, over the past couple of years, made it a real priority of his to cut back on education,” Lessing said of Douglas’s support for initiatives like Act 82, which requires school districts to hold a second vote on spending plans that exceed an inflationary increase.
“(Douglas) has made comments over the years about how it’s very important to him that education budgets be restrained and held down,” Lessing said. “Given that, it seems opportunistic of the governor to take the larger economic problems that the stat has right now, that are real and are sort of a national economic situation, and take his political agenda and reformulate the economic problems as education funding problems.”
He said he believed Douglas’s strategy is inconsistent with Congress’s current effort to inject more money into education.
“The idea that limiting education is going to help the economy seems cross-purpose to that,” he said.