Editorial: The magician's sleight of hand

When Vermont Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca released a report last week calling for cuts of $61 million out of the $1.5 billion annual education budget to help balance the budget in fiscal year 2011, you might have missed the political sleight of hand.

It went like this:

In the race to balance the estimated $150 million 2011 budget shortfall, the governor and company targeted a political issue that plays well to supporters: School spending and the desire to reduce school taxes.

In the proposal dubbed “Challenges for Change,” Vilaseca repeated his claims of the past year that by consolidating schools into larger union districts the state could save $15 million in fiscal year 2011. Of course it would be no small feat. To make his numbers work he needs to consolidate Vennont’s 281 school districts into 50 or fewer districts.

Even if that could be done, the second suggestion is more far fetched: He proposes increasing the staff-to-student ratio from the current 4.55-to-1 to 4.95-to-l, for fiscal year 2012, at a savings of $46 million. Now, think about that. He’s talking about consolidating schools. He might be right, but to hit his $46 million in savings, he would cut 1,200 staff by closing some schools and merging them with others. All in the next 12 months.

Let’s forgive the optimistic timetable, which even he admits is too aggressive, but let’s question the fuzzy math.

William Mathis, former superintendent at Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union and now managing director of the Education and Public Interest Center with headquarters in Colorado, said in a Rutland Herald interview last week that not only is there no correlation between district size and per pupil cost, but central office costs account for only 2.4 percent of statewide education spending. So even draconian cuts among administrative positions won’t account for much, let alone the $15 million Vilaseca projects.

“Much as Armando likes to think there are savings in consolidation, and much as it has a certain intuitive appeal, the data just don’t support it,” Mathis said.

But the more important question is whether the planned savings are politically feasible by 2011 and 2012. The answer is obvious: Absolutely not. “From a political perspective, I don’t see 76 people in the House that are going to fall on their swords for this,” said Rep. Johanna Leddy Donovan, chairwoman of the House Committee on Education. “And we have members of the Senate running for governor. Do you think they want to go on the campaign trail with a school consolidation mandate on their records?”

Why, then, the big fuss over the Challenges for Change proposal? Because the Legislature and the governor passed the bill earlier this session calling for a total of$38 million in savings in 2011 and more in 2012, and it directed the administration to put forth a plan.

The magician’s sleight is that Vilaseca’s proposal stirs up passions on both sides of the issue, with ample intuitive talking points that side with the administration’s proposal. For example, student population is falling but school spending is rising; the state has one of the nation’s lowest student-teacher ratios and consolidation of schools would help reduce costs; and school costs are on everyone’s hit list. Hot button points to be sure.

But ask this: Does anyone think consolidating the state’s 281 school districts into 50 or less, and closing schools and merging them into larger centralized school buildings can be accomplished by the 2012 fiscal year? Not on your life. Not even in five years, if ever!

The genius of the proposal, however, is that the discussion has deflected attention away from other cuts. The buzz all last week was about the proposed school cuts, instead of cuts and consolidations that were proposed for economic development and regional planning, or several other proposals. And absent are discussions about what else could be cut more easily, such as cutting the state police budget; cutting the governor’s staff; cutting legislative staff; perhaps reducing mileage expenses from 50 cents per mile (the federal rate) to, say, 35 cents a mile in upcoming negotiations; or hundreds of other ways that the $38 million could have been found without mandating a sea-change in Vermonters’ lives.

Ah, yes, the coin was in the hand all along, but the eye followed the story and missed the trick.

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Addison County Independent

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Middlebury, VT 05753

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