Margolis: Shifting 'scrutiny' from school budgets to politicians' claims - VTDigger

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

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