Voters reward parsimonious school boards with overwhelming support

Townshend Elementary School

In a message as clear as it was bland, the voters of Vermont went to Town Meeting this week to tell themselves everything was all right.

Not necessarily great. Acceptance was the common theme. Enthusiasm was not.

There were precious few resolutions designed to improve either Vermont or the world. One of the few that arose – a motion in Montgomery to support public sector unions in Wisconsin – was accepted without opposition, either because no one was opposed or because they decided not to bother arguing.

But if there was little passion, there was even less grumbling. With the sole exception of Burlington (which holds an election, not a town meeting) there was no sign of anything resembling a taxpayers’ revolt, and even in Burlington, the revolt may not have been against the taxes proposed as much as against the mayor who proposed them. The same voters who turned down Mayor Bob Kiss’s tax plan turned down everything else he supported, too, but approved the school budget despite its 2.8 percent increase.

By and large, the voters endorsed the status quo. With a few exceptions, Vermonters accepted whatever their town and school officials proposed. Of the 249 school budgets up for consideration, 246 were approved, said Stephen Dale, the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association.

Even the un-schooled can deduce that only three school budgets were rejected. All three – North Hero and Grand Isle in the northwestern corner of the state and Millers Run in the Northeast Kingdom – are very small, and are not kindergarten-through-12th grade systems.

Gov. Peter Shumlin gave school boards credit for containing costs. “If there’s any proof that local control works, it’s in the results of yesterday,” Shumlin said in a Wednesday press conference. “These school boards are working as hard as they can to respond to lower enrollments and to respond to taxpayers who are making the same money on average they were making 10 years ago and their costs are going up.”

All in all, Dale said, it was the smallest number of budget failures in more than 20 years.

All in all, Dale said, it was the smallest number of budget failures in more than 20 years.

One reason few proposed budgets were defeated is that most of them called for little or no spending increases. Perhaps the phrase most commonly heard in the school budget world these days is “level funding,” with most districts trying to keep their spending totals at or near last year’s levels. A few budgets even called for spending a few dollars less than last year.

This parsimony could reflect an incipient taxpayer revolt, or at least the fear of a possible taxpayer revolt. School board members clearly understood that, with economic insecurity still rampant as the Great Recession slogs on (at least as far as job growth goes), property tax increases would not be welcome. Under the “Challenges for Change” regimen adopted last year, school boards were pressured to cut their budgets by about 2 percent. Most of them didn’t cut quite that much, but they were clearly aware that, with state aid limited, big budget hikes – which might lead to big property tax hikes – would not be welcome

In general, though, meeting-goers did not seem especially stingy. Most of the proposals for disbursing funds to charities, health care providers, and libraries were approved, as were most requests for improving town and school facilities.

There were exceptions. By three votes, Rockingham rejected a $10.5 million bond issue for renovating the Bellows Falls Middle School. Stowe voters declined to spend $6.5 million for a new ice skating arena. Bolton decided not to renovate their fire station.

School board members clearly understood that, with economic insecurity still rampant as the Great Recession slogs on (at least as far as job growth goes), property tax increases would not be welcome.

But at least as many similar proposals were accepted. The Jay town meeting approved a new $450,000 town garage. Winooski decided to go ahead with a $2 million sidewalk and road repair plan. Rutland approved a $3.9 million bond to renovate and expand the Giorgetti Arena. In Barton, a motion not to fund Northeast Kingdom Human Services died for lack of a second.

Dale said that in the aggregate school budgets were down about 1 percent from last year, making this the third year “of pretty flat expenditures.”

And probably not the last.

“School boards have to take a fresh look at their assumptions, especially in small towns where the number of kids has shrunk,” he said. “They’ve got to get much more creative in working with other districts. Those conversations have begun.”

Dale said 90 districts are engaged at some level in talks with neighboring districts about cooperating, and perhaps eventually combining. The time is past, he said, when school boards can hold down costs without threatening the quality of education “simply by sharpening your pencil or ending a program here and there.” The conversations, he said, are local, so he had no “master list” of where and how matters were proceeding.

A state law passed last year encourages – and provides potential financial support – for school district consolidation. Dale said his association supports this process, but opposes legislative efforts to mandate a specific number of districts.

“These decisions really do need to be made by local folks,” he said. “I resist the idea that somebody from Montpelier can decide we’re only going to have 20 districts in the state.”

Meanwhile, the preliminary results of the annual Town Meeting Day survey by State Sen. Bill Doyle, a Montpelier Republican, would seem to support the conclusion that Vermonters are not changing their minds about many issues. Doyle’s survey is not a scientific, random-sample, poll. But it has so many respondents, that when real polls are taken, they usually show that his findings accurately reflect public opinion in the state.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Doyle said, he had compiled results from only about 5 percent of all respondents. But some of the majorities were so huge, he said, that they were all but certain to hold up. The results showed, he said, that Vermonters favor:

–No change in the law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets (92 percent);

–A ban on driving while talking on a cell phone (78 percent);

–A broader bottle deposit law (77 percent);

–Tougher mandatory minimum sentences for drunk drivers (76 percent).

In addition, he said, 67 percent said they were willing to pay more for locally grown food.

CORRECTION: There was a missing period in a figure cited for the Rockingham bond. Voters approved a $10.5 million bond, not a $105 million bond. We regret the error.

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Jon Margolis

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  • F. X. Flinn

    And what are we buying with our parsimony?

    Check this out:

    America’s Best High Schools

    These are challenging times for secondary education. Cash-strapped school districts are cutting back; No Child Left Behind mandates test results; parents and students stress unabated.

    NEWSWEEK, which has been ranking the top public high schools in America for more than a decade, revamped its methodology this year in hopes of highlighting solutions.

    We enlisted a panel of experts—Wendy Kopp of Teach For America, Tom Vander Ark of Open Education Solutions (formerly executive director for education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), and Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford professor of education and founder of the School Redesign Network—to develop a yardstick that fully reflects a school’s success turning out college-ready (and life-ready) students.

    To this end, each school’s score is comprised of six components:

    graduation rate (25%),
    college matriculation rate (25%),
    AP tests taken per graduate (25%),
    average SAT/ACT scores (10%),
    average AP/IB/AICE scores (10%), and
    AP courses offered (5%).

    (For more information on how these rankings were tabulated, see our Full Methodology.)

    STATE: Vermont

    Showing 0 to 0 of 0 entries (filtered from 500 total entries)

    No matching records found

    Vermont has NO schools in the top 500.

    F. X. Flinn
    [email protected] | c:802-369-0069