Despite rising property taxes, little appetite to curb local school spending

Prior to Town Meeting, Gov. Peter Shumlin implored Vermont voters to convey “a clear message to school boards and to their local communities that we’ve got to find ways to curb unsustainable costs of education in our state.”

Voters instead sent a resounding message that the prospect of rising tax rates hasn’t deterred them from supporting their local school budgets.

More than 90 percent of school budgets were approved on Monday and Tuesday in Town Meeting ballots. Sixteen school budgets were rejected.

Among the approved budgets was that of the town of Bolton — where residents gave the go-ahead to an over 18 percent increase in spending. Thirty-eight other districts saw increases in spending of over 10 percent.

Thirty-seven districts passed budgets lower than last year’s.

Of the 244 budgets that have been reported so far, 224 were approved. Four others were approved, but only in part. The rejection rate — about 7 percent — is higher than last year, when only 3 percent of budgets were voted down.

(The results aren’t quite comprehensive — 23 towns will vote at a later date, some as late as May, and, as of 4 p.m. today, three other towns had not yet reported results to the Vermont Superintendents Association.)

The average increase in education spending across all budgets is 5.34 percent. Salaries, health care premiums, and fuel costs account for much of this, according to Steve Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA).

Other statewide cost-drivers include special education, maintenance projects put off during the recession, expansions in pre-K, new technology, and, in a handful of school districts, an increase in students, Dale said.

This year’s crop of school budgets also reflected a hole left by federal funding.

While education spending went up by 5.34 percent, the average increase in school budgets was 4.58 percent. The loss of American Recovery and Reinvestment (ARRA) funds accounts for most of this difference, according to Dale.

Two-vote towns

Twenty districts — an unprecedented number — had to cast two ballots for their school budgets under the guidelines of a 2007 state law; 15 of the districts approved both portions of their budget; four approved the primary part but rejected the additional spending, and one town rejected both components.

Three additional towns that have not yet voted will also be subject to the two-vote mandate.

School districts where education spending is higher than the statewide average must vote twice on school budgets, if budget increases are more than one percent above inflation. Residents vote once on the budget items that fall below that threshold, and once on items that exceed it.

The requirement, signed into law in 2007, is scheduled to sunset this June.

Prior to this year, only 10 two-vote budgets had confronted voters.

“We believe that it’s not a terribly effective mechanism for influencing budgets,” Dale said, pointing to the fact that only five of the 35 two-votes that have taken place since the law was enacted have resulted in split votes. Four of those occurred this year. During the others, towns either approved or rejected the entire budget package.

Shumlin drew two clear-cut conclusions from the school budget vote results. He first observed that “local control is alive and well in Vermont,” and then noted, “local communities have said they want to spend more money on schools.”

Dale said the results show that “overall local voters respect the job done by school boards and understand what needs to go into budgeting.”

But, Dale added, for many voters, the complexity of the state’s education finance system may have obscured the link between school spending and tax rates.

“My read of town meeting is that people are paying attention mostly to budgets and not necessarily to tax rates because our tax calculations are fairly complex. We strongly support the current education financing system. … However we do believe there are some features that could be looked at in terms of tightening the connection between a budget vote and a tax bill,” Dale said.

Lawmakers in the House grappled with the same quandary prior to approving a five cent increase in the statewide property tax rate, in anticipation of the predicted 5.5 percent increase in education spending.

Shumlin has consistently called on local school boards to curtail education spending. In a letter sent to school boards in November 2012, he asked them to “redouble efforts to constrain, if not reduce, education spending” by not increasing budgets beyond the rate of inflation.

“I understand that situations vary by district and support local decision-making by school boards and voters, but acknowledge that we are looking at the 15th consecutive year of declining enrollments,” Shumlin wrote. His predecessor, Republican Gov. James Douglas, made a similar appeal to hold down school spending, with equally little success.

There are expected to be 668 fewer students in Vermont next year. Declining enrollment drives up per-pupil spending.

But with the bulk of school budget votes already tallied, Shumlin conceded that some of the cost-drivers fell outside the scope of school boards’ control this year.

“They [school boards] were up against some huge odds this time,” Shumlin said, citing steep increases in health care and heating fuel costs.

The state has a role to play in keeping costs down, too, Dale told VTDigger. It could, he suggest, exert more control over salary levels by adopting a statewide teachers’ contract, an often-suggested proposal that so far has not gained much traction. The state could also help school districts keep health care costs in check by helping them negotiate the transition to the health-care exchange, Dale said. He added that fuel costs and special education costs are also within the state’s purview.

Though most towns didn’t heed the governor’s plea this time around, Shumlin said the message must sink in next year.

At a press conference today, Shumlin told reporters, “We’ve got to ensure that next year, as we work together with a dwindling school population and growing staff, that community by community, we do a better job of holding down costs because taxpayers just can’t take it.”

Correction: Bolton’s school budget will increase by over 18 percent. We originally reported this increase was 17 percent.

Alicia Freese

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21 Comments on "Despite rising property taxes, little appetite to curb local school spending"


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Bob Zeliff
3 years 7 months ago
We all want the best education for our kids….vermonter have proven that we are willing to sacrifice a lot for our kid. but the costs to benefit as compared to other states show that we are not getting good value for out tax dollars. Mass has better outcomes for less cost. New Hamshire cost much less for outcomes that are close to ours. I do not know how to fix this, but for all the supervisory union people and principals that we are paying 6 figure salaries to ..I think we should expect both better results and less cost. I… Read more »
Tom Pelham
3 years 7 months ago
Bob (and Alicia for future reference)….regarding your last sentence – don’t bank on it and here’s why. Vermont’s property tax system is a system based upon three rates. These are the income-sensitized rate applied to household incomes and the residential and the non-residential rates applied to listed property values. Generally, residential properties owned by households with incomes slightly over $100,000 qualify for the income sensitized rate. These rates are not managed or in the control of local school districts, but managed by the state legislature. The House has already passed a bill (H.265) in this regard. One might think that… Read more »
3 years 7 months ago
We have a problem with dealing with excessive school spending, and that problem is exacerbated, if not caused by, a disconnect between what the issues driving the costs are and the solutions offered by the state and feds. A fine example is Shumlin’s bit about needing a statewide contract to keep teacher salaries down. Teacher salaries are not the problem; but the federal and state requirements regarding licensing are. Educators are less and less being allowed to teach across multiple disciplines, and that means more teachers have to be hired just to continue the normal course offerings. This is a… Read more »
Jim Christiansen
3 years 7 months ago
Rama, I’ve never heard a school organization (including mine) openly advocate against being a “youth services” provider. I’ve never heard the NEA or the VT principles Association take to the airwaves to rally the voters to say “no” to being a “youth service” provider. Yes, there are over-reaching, unfunded state and Federal mandates. However, the organizations running and servicing Vermont’s education system are happily complicit in the unsustainable rate of spending growth. It is this rate of growth that directly benefits them financially by keeping everyone well employed. (Reminds me of the perverse incentives in heath care funding) We don’t… Read more »
3 years 7 months ago
Actually Jim, as a school board member I am obligated to follow educational law whether I like it or not. Often times I find myself making decisions in the realm of lemonade from lemons – but that’s life. Nobody said it would be a series of easy or comfortable decisions. The administrators and teachers also are obligated to follow the law, and they have much more to lose by being defiant to the legal process then I as a volunteer board member do. It would be reprehensible of me to put any of our school employees in the position of… Read more »
Lee Stirling
3 years 7 months ago
Is there a law stating that schools have to “youth service providers”? What I think is reprehensible Rama, is the disproportional distribution of the funding schools receive. If a certain proportion of funding is assigned to programs and services to help those need extra support (due to a variety of social and perhaps biological circumstances) then an equal proportion of funding should be assigned to programs that will further propel those who are already over-achieving and allow them to realize their full potential. There has been much fuss in the past about equalizing education funding between “rich” and “poor” school… Read more »
Lee Stirling
3 years 7 months ago
Is there a state or federal law that says schools have to be “youth service providers” that we must comply with? What I find disturbing Rama, is the disproportional distribution of funds within school districts to the benefit of only a subset of those enrolled. There ought to be a proportional amount of school funding allotted both for programs and resources to further propel those who are already over-achieving to reach their full potential and for those who need the “youth services” that soak up so much of the education dollars now. There was much fuss not long ago about… Read more »
3 years 7 months ago
Lee, I believe your point regarding an uneven distribution of resources is quite accurate, but the funds are distributed with the intent of achieving “substantially equal access to a quality basic education” (16 V.S.A. §1). Whether for good or bad is up to you or me to decide individually and then act as group. The reality is that there are kids and young adults who need more assistance and there others who need less. In my opinion the funding should be a reflection that. I do believe a problem arises when the funding mechanism can be shown to be depriving… Read more »
3 years 7 months ago
Lee, I believe your point regarding an uneven distribution of resources is quite accurate, but the funds are distributed with the intent of achieving “substantially equal access to a quality basic education” (16 V.S.A. §1). Whether for good or bad is up to you or me to decide individually and then act as group. The reality is that there are kids and young adults who need more assistance and there others who need less. In my opinion the funding should be a reflection that. I do believe a problem arises when the funding mechanism can be shown to be depriving… Read more »
Michael Gardner
3 years 7 months ago
Budgets go up because 73% of the population is isolated from an increase in property taxes. If you can vote yourself more services, and force your neighbor to pay for it, you’re getting a good deal and will continue to vote in favor of increases. It is rational self interest. Until you change the funding mechanism and require a little more skin in the game the problems will continue. This theory of passing on liabilities, increasing profits (services) for oneself caused a great deal of the financial crisis when practiced by banks. Liberals are furious that banks should have had… Read more »
Carl Werth
3 years 7 months ago

Spot on, Michael. For those who do not pay their full property taxes because of income sensitivity – who cares if they vote for a higher and higher school budgets. It means NOTHING to them because the part they have to pay never rises.

Dave Bellini
3 years 7 months ago

Not quite true. I benefit from income sensitivity but I vote NO because my taxes still continue to rise and eventually no one will be able to afford the out of control cost of “education.” We no longer pay for just education. Schools are a social services agency and have taken over parental responsibility.

Curtis Sinclair
3 years 7 months ago

How many non-teachers and administrators are in VT schools? Could that be driving up the costs? A recent study by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found that many states employ more nonclassroom personnel than teachers.

I knew someone who used to teach at Burlington High School, and he was always complaining about how many administrators the school had.

David Usher
3 years 7 months ago
Vermont is not a home rule state thus the Legislature has control of municipalities and school districts. The myth of local control must be exposed as a sham. School spending is out of control because the Legislature abdicates its responsibility to control the property tax rate and a realistic funding formula. The education funding mechanism is broken and the “Cillo” method must be abolished. It defies common sense that as student populations have declined, school costs have dramatically escalated.. No one in Montpelier is willing to make the hard decisions because the “Cillo” funding formula insulates politicians from doing their… Read more »
rosemarie jackowski
3 years 7 months ago
Front page headline in today’s Bennington Banner: “PARENTS CLAIM ‘CATASTROPHIC FAILURE’ ” This comes after years of trying for improvemnets by many parents. Finally, last week, one family ‘wired’ their 8 year-old boy. What happened in the school was secretly recorded that day. The system needs to be changed. Throwing money at it will not improve it. Getting more and more administrators will not improve it. Not too long ago, students learned to read when there were 35 in the class. Then came educational fads, hi tech, consultants, and ‘experts’. That led to a catastrophic failure.
Al Salzman
3 years 7 months ago
All the comments above are a pathetic example of the blind leading the blind, and trying to shoot verbal arrows at the wrong target, if I may mix a metaphor. Teachers, unions, bad parents, ineffective lesson plans, no child left behind, race to the top, merit pay, charter schools, privatization …and on and on the back biting goes, and inevitably nothing really changes because one of the most vital root causes of educational failure are never, ever discussed at any length – to wit: the destruction of the family because of income inequality. The best way to improve the education… Read more »
3 years 7 months ago
The single greatest predictor of child’s success in education is how seriously the home views education. The single greatest predictor of how seriously the home views education is economic status. The single greatest predictor of a home’s economic status is the educational level of the “bread winners”. I’ll be happy to jump in the circle at any one of those points. However as a school board member I’m responsible for dealing with the realities of today. The realities of today is the fight for sensible economic policies is being lost (hopefully only temporarily). There is a lot local districts can… Read more »
Michael Gardner
3 years 7 months ago
Al, With all due respect your logic is flawed. 99.9% of parents understand what action causes babies. If you are in a tough economic situation perhaps it is best to keep your pants on, and not rely on a redistributionist tax system to raise your children. There is much greater upward mobility for young adults that are not coincidently young parents, and mortality tables suggest that society doesn’t need to procreate at age 16 in order to ensure survival of the human race. I’m not sure why you feel it is perfectly acceptable to confiscate an ever greater portion of… Read more »
Dave Bellini
3 years 7 months ago

“The single greatest predictor of child’s success in education is how seriously the home views education.”

How are you measuring this?

“The single greatest predictor of how seriously the home views education is economic status.”

Nearly all parents who don’t make a lot of money take their kids’ education very “seriously.” You equate competency and good parenting with wealth. What is the income level whereby parents take their kids education “seriously?”

3 years 7 months ago
In every study that includes home attitudes regarding education I have read (and it is a couple handfuls by now) a direct correlation is shown between how education is viewed at home and how well as a group children/young adults do in school. Lower income households tend to have lower expectations of what education can accomplish; lower income homes tend to be less aggressive in pursuing educational options and opportunities; lower income homes tend to be less able to provide the physical needs of education; and other. This is not because these people are all bad parents (bad parenting gets… Read more »
Sara DeGennaro
3 years 7 months ago
Those of us who live in Vermont with income and sales tax often look across the river at New Hampshire and think “well, at least their property taxes are higher than ours”. And in general, this is true, if you are not a Vermonter unfortunate enough to be struggling to pay your ever increasing property tax. But the truth is, Vermont enacted a statute in 1797, referred to as the “commission law”, which results in approximately 10% of Vermont’s most vulnerable property owners being severely financially penalized and having their homes at risk, even though they have committed no crime.… Read more »
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