Margolis: Shifting ‘scrutiny’ from school budgets to politicians’ claims

Scrutinize, for a moment, the word “scrutinize.”

“To examine in detail with careful or critical attention,” says the dictionary. It is from the Latin verb “scrutere,” meaning “to examine,” derived from “scruta,” Latin for “trash,” specifically “old clothes.”

In ancient Rome as later, it seems, those who gathered old clothes would “search in a heap of discarded garments,” (the words of “Origins: a Short Dictionary of Modern English”) to see if they contained anything of value. So the word for worn-out togas (and whatever the Romans wore under them) became the word for precise and exhaustive perusal.

“Scrutinize” is what Gov. Peter Shumlin called on Vermonters to do to their school budget proposals this year, and after 35 of them were defeated last Tuesday he praised voters for following his advice.

“In a number of communities, voters scrutinized their budgets and per pupil school spending, and asked school boards to go back and make adjustments,” he said.

Not likely.

To scrutinize the school budget, a voter would have had to painstakingly plow through the details: the number of teachers and administrators and their salaries, the extracurricular activities offered and their cost, the maintenance staff and its schedule, and more.

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks with reporters at a bill-signing ceremony in South Burlington. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks with reporters at a bill-signing ceremony in South Burlington. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

That’s not what voters did. They looked at the bottom line, said to themselves, the proposed tax rate increase is what percent, and then voted no.

As could have been expected. In many cases that what was seven, eight, 10 percent and even more. The reaction was understandable. Calling the process “scrutinizing” appears to be a lot of scruta.

The consequences are not, neither for the schools nor for state officials, starting with Shumlin and the leaders of the Legislature. Some districts might have to cut their budgets so much that schools will be unable to provide the kind of learning parents want and Vermonters have come to expect. As for state officials, they are confronted with the possibility that something is out of whack.

That’s because while some school tax rates went way up, most of the actual school budgets did not. In the aggregate, said Stephen Dale, the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, budgets proposed by local schools rose by 3 percent. But the projected tax rates went up more than twice as fast.

This disparity could have been a one-time blip, owing to the peculiarities of the moment (every moment has its peculiarities). But it also raises the possibility that the current school financing system based on Acts 60 and 68 may need to be adjusted, if not replaced.

A possibility likely to be welcomed by the vocal minority of officials and activists who never liked those laws, or the 1996 Vermont Supreme Court decision holding that the previous system “deprives children of an equal educational opportunity.”

But both Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith indicated last week that they were cool to making major changes to the system in the two or three months remaining in this legislative session.

Even Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, the Stowe Republican who has long opposed the Act 60/Act 68 system (but not, she noted, its commitment to equity) said there might not be time enough this year for “something comprehensive, something meaningful” to be done.

But she said the results showed that even in the towns that approved their budgets, “people are fed up” with the current system, and the Legislature has to “have that discussion” about changing it.

The budget rejections do seem likely to inspire one quick policy change. In an interview on Vermont Public Radio Friday, the governor said he and the Legislature would shift more money into the state’s Education Fund (he didn’t say from where) to lighten the burden on property taxes.

Stephen Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Stephen Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

That might enable districts to make modest cuts and then resubmit their budgets with smaller projected property tax increases, thanks to the extra money from the state’s Ed Fund. Many of the defeated budgets were already lean, and were turned down because – thanks to the state’s intricate, complex (and maybe incomprehensible to the average person?) school finance system – they required big tax rate increases.

Dale said in big school districts such as Burlington and Montpelier, where budgets have been going up for years, officials would probably have enough flexibility to “do something like change a class size from 18 to 20, or do some other adjustments that don’t necessarily change the educational experience of a child.”

But some rural districts with small teaching staffs “may have to cut physical education or may have to cut music,” he said, diminishing the quality of the education they provide.

As Burlington Superintendent Jeanne Collins described it, Burlington’s situation is typical in that its proposed budget increase (3.9 percent) was much less than the 9.9 percent property tax increase that would have been required to finance it.

Collins said her district – the state’s largest – might also have to cut into its core functions while still not saving the taxpayers much money.

Burlington’s situation is typical in that its proposed budget increase (3.9 percent) was much less than the 9.9 percent property tax increase that would have been required to finance it.

Most of the difference, she said, came from the possible increase of 6 cents per $100 of appraised value for the statewide school tax (possibly even 7 cents, still to be determined by the Legislature) and a 1.8 percent increase in Burlington’s Common Level of Appraisal (translation to follow).

Burlington’s city charter, Collins said, calls for a “default” budget – basically spending the same next year as this year – to be adopted if voters do not approve a budget by July 1.

In that case, she said, Burlington would have to cut another $1.5 million from its budget.

“If it were all teachers, that would be 20 teachers,” she said.

It won’t be, but Burlington “may have to eliminate some high school elective options,” she said, or even consider junking some basic academic courses.

The property tax rate increase under this default budget, she said, would be 8 percent, lower than the original 9.9 percent proposal but still a hefty tax hike.

Jeanne Collins, center, superintendent of the Burlington School District

Jeanne Collins, center, superintendent of the Burlington School District

The tax rates rose faster than the spending because Vermont’s school finance formula is not based simply on spending. Instead, tax rates are determined through a complicated process that starts with per pupil costs. Because the school population statewide (though not in Burlington) is falling, per pupil costs can rise even if total spending does not.

But “per pupil” spending is an oversimplification. The tax is really based on “education spending per equalized pupil of all the pupils residing in (a) town” (this from the Department of Taxes), adjusted by the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA).

The CLA is an annual assessment the department undertakes to “ensure … that you and your neighbor in the next town pay the same amount of education tax on properties of equal value.” (The Tax Department again.) Because property values have declined in much of the state, more is required from each property to raise the same amount of revenue.

Pupils are “equalized” (actually separated and classified) depending on how difficult – and presumably how expensive – it is to teach them. Kindergartners are given less “weight” than middle-schoolers or most high school students, with the biggest weights going to students with handicapped and those whose first language is not English.

Burlington has far more of these students than anyplace else in Vermont (Collins said 650 of its 4,000 students come from non-English-speaking households) which helps explain that big proposed tax hike.

Stephen Dale of the School Boards Association said many school finance experts think this pupil “equalization” system “is too complicated and the weights aren’t correct. It probably makes sense for the Legislature to look at how these are created.”

In short, the present system could be tweaked, not totally scuttled. It is worth remembering that roughly 85 percent of Vermont towns approved their school budgets. As Jack Hoffman of the pro Act 60/Act 68 Public Assets noted, “This is a democracy. Some voters voted against their school budgets, and local boards will have to respond. That in itself is not a signal the system is broken.”

Perhaps not. But this is bound to be the subject of debate over the next few weeks. The debaters will be well-intentioned and perhaps insightful. But the wise citizen would be well-advised to … well, scrutinize the various claims to see how much of what is contained therein is what Julius Caesar and his amici would have called multa scruta.

Jon Margolis


  1. Mary Daly :

    When considering school budgets there never seems to be much discussion about reducing spending on social service programs. Schools have taken on responsibility for more and more parenting. I have suggested annually that my school district refer children and families in need to the multitude of social service programs already provided by the State. This would free up the schools to educate the children and reduce staff and staff time.

    • David Schoales :

      or better yet, coordinate those service around the school day- have case workers coordinate with school supports instead of operating separately- wrap around services.

    • Kristin Blanchette. :

      I am a child therapist who works for the Howard Center in a school. Client’s Insurances pay for services, the school gives me a room to use 2 1/2 days each week, little cost to the school. I see kids during the school day. There are clinicians under this model deployed in about 40 schools in Chittenden County.
      I am also a School Board member in Monkton. Our budgets for educational spending have gone up 2% over the last 3 years, but taxes continue to rise at a much higher rate. Less than 4% of the Federal budget is spent on Education. Priorities need to be changed in Washington to send more money back to the states for Pre-K through 12 education. This would lessen the local tax burden, and be a wise shift of resources.

  2. Beth Leggiere :

    In short, the present system could be tweaked, not totally scuttled. It is worth remembering that roughly 85 percent of Vermont towns approved their school budgets. As Jack Hoffman of the pro Act 60/Act 68 Public Assets noted, “This is a democracy. Some voters voted against their school budgets, and local boards will have to respond. That in itself is not a signal the system is broken.”

    I am sorry, but I will in a “donor” town where the average full-time resident earns less than the state average income. The system is unfair at its core. It needs a total reworking.

    • Moshe Braner :

      Beth: households of your town that earn less than $90,000 or so pay by income not property. So in total your town may not be a “donor town” after all.

      • Wendy wilton :

        Moshe, middle class working Vermonters who live in modest homes often do not not enjoy the state subsidy at the same level as someone who has a low income but high home value, not matter what town you live in. There are many wealth people who find ways to keep their incomes low for tax purposes, but middle income working folks can’t do that. That’s a huge inequity in this financing system that many people with significant assets make out very well, while someone who lives within their means gets hosed. I know this for fact as I am the tax collector in my town and I see the tax data. If Vermonters could see this data in its entirety for their town they would be shocked.

        In the beginning the Act 60 tax subsidies were intended to help low income, low home value folks through the circuit-breaker, which made sense. Over time the legislature approved expansions so that more and more people were able to access the subsidies to the point that many communities have over 50% of their taxpayers receiving such subsidies, and until now many were immune to the tax hikes of the system.

        So in the process of implementing Act 60 we switched one inequity (education quality) for another inequity (tax burden).
        Worse yet, as the cost burden of education has increased, many small schools are losing ground on the ability to provide a 21st century education as Margolis points out, even though their taxpayers are maxed out. So we’ve come back around again and now the system that was supposed to provide equal education according to the Brigham decision, isn’t. And Mary Daly’s comment is right on in that our schools have become an extension of the social safety net, thus costing more as the educational system is now the daytime default for lack of parenting and round the clock social services.

        Something surely needs to give. Small changes will not be enough to fix this however.

  3. Tim Fritz :

    I wonder how many people voting no on their school budgets were inspired to do so at least in part by the governor and other “leaders” repeated proclamations that school budgets needed to be cut? While offering no good alternatives to the often unfair system of funding this most basic and important lynchpin of our society by property tax, they engender a higher level of anger and discontent among those who understand the complexity and the importance of providing a meaningful, enduring preparation of our children the least. I would propose for our policy makers a variation on Thumper’s mother’s rule. If you can’t say something that improves the improves the educational prospects of our children, shut your damn mouth.

  4. Frank Davis :

    In any town in Vermont a property owner who “earns less than the state average income” will absolutely qualify for tax rebates of a substantial amount. The “system” is actually one of the best, if not the best, in providing fairness for at least the owner of one home on less than 2 acres. Owners of second homes and large acreage and commercial property are paying ‘full price’ which give the impression of unfairness. By the way an owner of a million dollar property as a primary residence but have low annual income, may qualify for a tax rebate based on income regardless of property value. Now that’s unfair.

    • Fred Woogmaster :

      That is unfair Mr. Davis. I agree.

      Neither income nor property value should be the sole determinant of tax liability.

      The truth is in the center. When we find a just formula for the taxation of wealth that center might be more easily attained.

      One of the problems, of course, is that those in power have made it increasingly easy to “hide” wealth. It’s difficult to ‘hide’ real estate or legally acquired income.

    • Wendy wilton :

      Agreed. I have commented on this frequently as a huge flaw in this funding system. However, for some politicians in certain districts that has been a boon.

  5. Karl Riemer :

    “thanks to the state’s intricate, complex (and maybe incomprehensible to the average person?) school finance system”

    Maybe?! To the average?! The school finance system is a byzantine, rube goldberg wonder. “The average person” would better understand throwing darts at a map and selling all the inhabitants of the town so chosen into slavery to pay that year’s education costs for the rest of the state. That has a logical limit of diminishing returns, but apparently so does this cockamamie scheme.

  6. Moshe Braner :

    Jon: you waited until most of the way through this article to mention the most important point: the system is based on per-pupil spending, and the number of pupils has decreased. That’s why some towns saw a large tax hike looming. Like it or not, with fewer pupils we need to spend less. Schools have been resisting this imperative but it’s inevitable. And yes smaller schools have a harder time providing good and rich teaching programs for a reasonable per-pupil price, that’s another fact of life we can’t and shouldn’t get around.

    Then you mixed that issue up with the “common level of appraisal” thing. That’s a separate issue. Yes, to raise the same amount of money in property taxes based on lower property values the “rates” need to rise. So what? I really don’t care at all what my tax “rate” is, only what my tax bill is: the number of dollars.

    The only way in which the system is “broken” is in the fact that the wealthier taxpayers are still paying by property value rather than income, resulting in them typically paying a smaller percentage of their income.

    • Moshe Braner :

      PS: You wrote: “Pupils are “equalized” (actually separated and classified) depending on how difficult – and presumably how expensive – it is to teach them … with the biggest weights going to students with handicapped and those whose first language is not English. Burlington has far more of these students than anyplace else in Vermont … which helps explain that big proposed tax hike.”

      – methinks you got this backwards. Since Burlington has many such students, given higher weights, its computed “equalized” pupil count is higher than it would have otherwise been, reducing its calculated per-student spending, and thus reducing the tax rates. Burlington’s tax rates were set to increase for other reasons you’ve mentioned (general reduction in student count, and changing property values).

      • Jon Margolis :

        Mr. Braner appears to be right. All those non-English-speaking kids add to the cost of Burlington schools, but perhaps hold down the tax rate.

        • Tom Pelham :

          Jon…The byzantine nature of Act 60/Act 68 encourages interpretations similar to the Rorschach or inkblot test, where the viewer, in describing the shapes made by an inkblot, reveals more about the viewer than the inkblot. Mr. Braner’s reading of the situation is only partially correct.

          Regarding equalized pupils, the construct of the law is that the number of equalized students in total, after the equalization process, be the same as the actual student count with one exception. Here’s the statutory language from Title 16 that regulates the conversion of students (daily membership) to “equalize pupils” and the exception.

          “Equalized pupils” means the long-term weighted average daily membership multiplied by the ratio of the statewide long-term average daily membership to the statewide long-term weighted average daily membership.

          For purposes of the calculation under this section, a district’s equalized pupils shall in no case be less than 96 and one-half percent of the district’s equalized pupils in the previous year.

          Thus, for the current fiscal year, fiscal 2014, the Agency of Education records the student count at 89,060 and the “equalized pupil” count at 89,899. The difference is the result of the above 96.5 percent limitation. Given that more equalized pupils equates to a lower tax rate and vice versa, what this formula means is that some districts are winners while others are losers. For example, for fiscal 2014, Burlington gained 137 students while Champlain Valley UHSD lost 195 students in the “equalized pupil” conversion process.

          However, in the overall scheme of Act 60/Act 68, the “spending per equalized pupil” factor is of relatively minor effect. It is the statewide base education rates, which are the foundation of the application of the Brigham decision to Vermont’s education funding system and set by the legislature, that are the driving force behind property taxes. For fiscal 2014, of the $970.4 million in property taxes raised net of income sensitivity payments, only 14.4% is attributable to the portion of property tax rates driven by per pupil spending. The rest is the result of the base education rates set by the legislature to comply with Brigham and to balance revenues with expenditures to fund school district budgets from the Education Fund.

  7. Thomas Powell :

    For those of us being pummeled by year-after-year tax increases, the biggest annoyance might be Shumlin’s punting on any kind of honest data-based discussion about single payer health care costs. I think he wants to survive the November election, and stonewalling makes political sense to him. His puppy will cost $2,000,000,000. If he starts talking about the kind of new tax numbers we’re hearing from economists, then the additive impact really will drive the middle class and job makers out of Vermont.

    The issue of education and health care funding are intertwined social policies and should be discussed as such, not as silos. Vermont can not provide everything to everyone. Time to make some tough decisions, or a lot of people will be voting with their feet.

  8. Dave Bellini :

    The reason more school budgets got voted down is that more and more people cannot afford to pay their property taxes.
    Vermont education has a SPENDING problem. Eventually the big increases are catching up with people, even people with income sensitivity.
    Tweaking the education system or the funding formula will do little to lower spending. The best answer is through property tax reform. Vermonters need a hard property tax cap. That will put schools on a budget and they will have to live on it.

    • Lee Stirling :

      Yes, more and more people cannot afford to pay their taxes and, faced year after year with tax increases, it isn’t surprising that more school budgets got voted down on Town Meeting Day than any time in the last 11 years. Thomas Powell had it 100% it right though when he said that Gov. Shumlin et. al. totally punted the tax reform ball down the field in lieu of November elections. It was Shumlin himself who publicly pointed the finger at local school boards and budgets for the tax increases when savings realized on the local level would only act around the margins and not result in substantive tax reform and savings to Vermont taxpayers. The Shumlin administration sought and is still seeking to distract voters from holding them accountable for the lack of true property tax reform by pitting taxpayers against their own communities. In a stunning show of his true colors, the Governor would rather have us at each others’ throats than at his. As long as Vermonters keep playing into his and other politicians’ hands, the Governor isn’t going to do a damn thing about property taxes. Time to stop squabbling about a single tree and work to manage the whole forest.

  9. Let’s see if we can reconcile these 2 facts:

    Vermont is 2nd or 3rd in the nation in per pupil expenditures, depending on your source. Vermont is 19th in household median income. (Many other states are similarly rural and sparsely populated.)
    Contemplating a 23% tax increase in single year in Westminster, VT, I offer a few possible conclusions:
    1) We are spending way above our means
    2) Education need is infinite. There is always more that we can do for our kids.
    3) Despite falling student populations, state-mandated requirements increase costs
    4) Though much lip service is paid to economy, local school boards and voters have little control over costs. Unions and administrators have the system wired to their advantage.
    5) At current rates of increase, taxes will double every 3 years, depriving more and more residents of disposable income and discouraging folks from starting or expanding businesses here.

  10. linda setchell :

    The largest sector for job growth in VT in 2013 was the social services sector. We no longer have a functioning economy in VT because the poorest amongst cannot survive on the meager wages paid. This has ripple effects across the entire state economy including school budgets.

    If a household makes less than $90k a year, property taxes are based on income. If you raise the incomes of the poorest set of Vermonters, there will be more money in the pool for schools to use.

    Shumlin’s proposal to increase the minimum wage to $10.1o/hr over 3 years is bad economic policy and at it’s core the root cause of many of the state’s economic woes.

    Both state reps and senators have proposed bills increasing the minimum wage to $12/hr while this is no where near the $17/hr considered a livable wage back in 2000, it’s a significant step in the right direction.

    Take advantage of the snow storm and contact your legislators and urge them to support a $12/hr minimum wage first. By Saturday it will be too late. You have 36 hrs.

    S. 301 is the senate bill. H. 552 is the house bill.

  11. Representative Patti Komline :


    In response to your comment that “roughly 85% of towns approved their school budgets” it is important to note that 26% of students in the state had their school’s budgets voted down. When a quarter of the children in our state are negatively impacted by town votes it might be time to consider an overhaul of the current system.

    • I’d be interested in finding out if those defeated budgets (representing 26% of the students per Rep Komline) represented 26% of the voters who cast a vote on the state’s education budgets.

      Anybody have any ideas?

  12. Jesse James :

    Why are the budgets going up? What specific cost increases are occuring? Utilities? Inrastructure? Salaries and benefits? If salaries are going up (even as a cost of living adjustment) maybe that is an issue that needs to be adressed. How many other vermonters are getting a raise? Same with benefits most people are getting benefits cut. With declining school populations we should be downsizing scools accordingly.

    Nothing against school but no one is stating specific reasons for cost increases.

    One massive massive cost savings objective is cut foreign language programs. Replace with rosetta stone. Rosetta Stone would be a fraction of the cost, grades itself and proven so effective it is used by the US government to train people at DOS, DHS, and various other agencies.

    SBHS in 98 had 5-7 foreign language teachers if I recall. Good people but Rosetta Stone is far more effective and far longer lasting. Plus students could learn dozens upon dozens of different languages.

    Mandarin, Hindi, Farsi, Russian, Arabic, Wolof etc.

    You wouldn’t even need a certified teacher. Rosetta Stone instantly grades itself. No need for homework. 45 minutes a day is golden. 1 person could effectively log and do what 5-7 did. Huge cost savings. Modernization in this area would most effectively teach our students about the global community.

  13. Jesse James :

    “Poor towns” vs. “rich towns”

    Some of these “poor towns” also have 0 expenses outside of schools. No paid fire departments, or paid police. We could have towns with intentionally low property tax rates knowing wealthier towns will pay up.

  14. Bud Haas :

    I suspect that most if not all of the rejected school budgets were from towns voting by Australian ballot, rather than negotiated budgets at as old style town meetings. There, the “no” voters go in and unthinkingly vote “no”. In the old democracy style vote we really know why the voters vote the way they do, and how much they want to raise or lower the budget.
    Does anyone out there know how many of the town meeting day no votes were by Australian type ballot votes?



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