MIDDLEBURY — While the Vermont Legislature did not convene last week, lawmakers received a homework assignment doled out by area voters on Town Meeting Day: Do something about rising education property taxes.
Vermont residents voted down 35 of approximately 250 school budgets that were on communities’ town meeting dockets on March 3 and 4 — the largest number of failed spending plans since the advent of Act 68 in 2005, according to Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol.
In Addison County, the Vergennes Union High School and Ferrisburgh Central School spending plans went down to decisive defeats. Just across the border in Rutland County, Brandon’s Neshobe Elementary School budget also failed to win approval.
“It is a concern,” Sharpe, a veteran member of the House Ways and Means Committee, told participants at Monday’s Legislative Breakfast in Bristol. “We certainly heard, even in a lot of towns where budgets passed, concern about the high cost of education.”
Sharpe said lawmakers are engaged in “serious conversations” about restructuring school districts — specifically, enlarging them. Reiterating a plan he discussed last week, Sharpe said there appears to be support for making a single board within each supervisory union responsible for budgeting and negotiating teacher contracts for each school district within that union. This would free individual school boards to focus on education policy, he said.
It’s a plan that legislators believe would reduce administrative bureaucracy.
“This is a work in progress,” Sharpe said of the effort, which is currently within the purview of the House Education Committee.
Sharpe cautioned that merely altering funding streams to pay for public education will not solve the problem.
“It’s not about paying the bill, it’s about how big the bill is,” Sharpe said. “It’s about the costs underlying how we educate our kids. Sure, in the Legislature we could raise the income tax by $100 million and reduce property taxes by 10 cents. It’s roughly $10 million per penny. But that just means we’d be collecting the same amount of money out of your income instead of out of your property value. I’m not sure that’s the direction we want to go in. The amount of money we are spending per pupil in this state is high. We need to get our arms around reducing costs for education.”
Salisbury resident Heidi Willis said her community’s school board has said that it only has control over approximately 10 percent of the local school budget. And since Salisbury’s municipal budget and many other items on its town meeting warning are decided by Australian ballot, Willis said she wonders if residents are losing the incentive to show up at their annual meeting.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, disputed the notion that school boards don’t have control over a majority of their budgets. She said school faculty and staff salaries and benefits are a majority of the budget, and school boards have the power to eliminate positions.
Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, agreed.
“The only way we can reduce the cost of our education system is to tackle the people in the system,” Ralston said.
He noted that many Vermont schools continue to have low (by national standards) student-teacher ratios.
“The really difficult part is, the only way we are going to change the cost of education in Vermont is to change the people in the system and how many of those people are in that system,” Ralston said.
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, said 80 percent to 82 percent of each school’s budget is typically associated with personnel salaries and benefits. He noted that school staffing levels in Vermont have remained essentially level during the past decade, while student population has been declining steadily.
“That’s the rub that I can see,” Bray said. “No one wants to be laying anyone off, so it’s very tough for a local school board to talk about decreasing staffing levels, even if they have falling student numbers.”
He pointed to the financial payoff that some supervisory unions are experiencing by regularly meeting with all of their schools’ administrators to discuss ways of sharing and jointly purchasing resources.
Bray added that at the same time school taxes have been going up, buying power for many Vermonters has been declining — when one factors in inflation.
The average male worker in the United States had a median wage of $32,844 in 1968, according to Bray. In 2010, the same worker’s wage was $32,177 (adjusted for inflation), he said.
“Here you have almost 40 years going by and someone is actually making less money than they did generations ago,” Bray said. “Meanwhile, the U.S. economy has grown tremendously. So why aren’t most lower- and middle-waged workers making more money along with the growing economy?”
Ralston said Vermont’s relatively low unemployment rate is skewed by the fact that there are “several thousand Vermonters” who have stopped looking for jobs out of discouragement. And he said the Vermont Department of Labor is projecting that a “vast number” of the anticipated job openings during the next 10 years will be “low-wage service jobs, none of which pay what you would call a living wage.
“Since the recession (of 2007/2008), Vermont is resetting its economy at a lower rate,” added Ralston, a member of the House Commerce and Community Development Committee. “Jobs are moving, and we are growing our service economy. We are growing the lower end of our economic spectrum.”
That said, Ralston said it will be important for the state to confront the question of “how much, and how good, of an education can we afford? People are proud of education in Vermont, but we have to look at the balance between people’s income and the cost of living.”
Not everyone at Monday’s Legislative Breakfast agreed with the notion that school governance consolidation and/or smaller teaching staffs are the answer.
Along with hearing complaints about rising school costs, Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, said he also “heard a loud and clear message at my (Addison-4 district) town meetings that they are proud of their schools and how much they feel a sense of community that centers around their school … and how concerned they are about losing that sense of community with this conversation about resources and centralizing.”
Weybridge resident Spence Putnam said his town has been an example of a community that has held the line on school budget increases in recent years, but has nonetheless seen some double-digit percentage hikes in its education property tax rate. He pointed to declining enrollment, a change in the assessment system for Addison Central Supervisory Union special education and central office expenses, and the creation of a new ACSU-wide school maintenance position as among reasons for the school tax increases. But he added that student numbers are on the rebound at the Weybridge school, which continues to receive support in spite of its financial challenges.
“The people of Weybridge feel that the school is the heart of the community,” Putnam said. “The school plays an important role in attracting people to town.”
Other discussion at Monday’s breakfast focused on:
• The Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project. At town meetings last week, Cornwall, Monkton and Shoreham passed referenda opposing Vermont Gas’s Phase II pipeline, which would extend from Middlebury to the International Paper Co. mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y. It is a project that has drawn criticism from some residents along the proposed pipeline route, who have expressed safety, environmental and property rights concerns. Affected property owners have until March 21 to file their testimony regarding the project with the Vermont Public Service Board.
• A proposal to increase public disclosure requirements for lobbyists.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.