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.
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.