Voters reject 18 school budgets

Gov. Phil Scott asked voters to reject increases in school spending on Town Meeting Day, but only 18 out of 209 budgets failed — fewer than half the number that were struck down in 2014 when calls for tax relief hit a fever pitch.

Scott voted against the school budget in his town of Berlin and he wasn’t the only one. The $3.5 million budget for the elementary school failed 208-173.

Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, who chairs the Senate Committee on Education, said, “the governor went to town meeting in Berlin and spoke against the budget there and it went down.”

Scott has urged lawmakers to put pressure on schools to level fund budgets because of dramatically declining enrollments. The state once had 105,000 students. There are now fewer than 80,000. The student population dropped by 1,000 last year.

Meanwhile, school spending rates continue to rise. The outgoing Shumlin administration estimated that property taxes would go up 2.35 percent this year.

Turnout is typically low on town meeting, Scott has said, and he hoped to get more people out to vote on Tuesday because he believes only a few school boosters voices are being heard.

“School budget votes are based on many factors and unfortunately only represent a small percentage of voters, therefore, are not necessarily reflective of broad support or opposition to the need for education or property tax reform,” Scott said.

Scott built his budget on the premise that school boards would level fund budgets.The governor proposed a date change for school votes from March to May as part of the proposal.

A Senate panel rejected the school budget vote date change, as did the House.

Scott then urged Vermonters to send a message to Montpelier and vote down school budgets on Town Meeting Day. That tact, too, appears to have failed.

“It didn’t seem to me like there was any kind of message being sent by voters,” Baruth said.

Baruth’s counterpart in the House, Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, said each community votes up or down for different reasons, “Several [defeats] were local issues and that was the right thing for the voters to do.”

As of Tuesday, 18 budgets were defeated. Voters made cuts to one budget and approved increases to eight budgets. Fourteen communities will vote on school budgets at a later date.

Last year, 11 failed, one passed with cuts and three with increases. In 2015, 22 budgets were defeated, two passed with cuts and four with increases.

“Overall, communities in Vermont this year maintained their strong support for public schools and did not respond to Governor Scott’s call to solve our state’s budget problems by rejecting school budgets,” said Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Board Association.

Mace said concerns about the affordability of the K-12 public education system are legitimate and more needs to be done to deliver tax relief.

Just because a town approves its budget doesn’t mean that it is OK with paying high property taxes, Sharpe says.

“There is concern about high property taxes even in communities that pass their budgets. It is a conundrum – for lack of a better word – because voters want to support the education of their children so they vote to support the school budget.”

School budgets failed in the following towns:

Barre City (elementary school)
Fair Haven
Fair Haven Union High School
Hazen Union High School
St. Johnsbury
South Burlington
Spaulding High School
Twin Valley Schools

CORRECTION: 209 communities will vote on school budgets this year.

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Tiffany Danitz Pache

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  • It is more than a conundrum, it is a tragedy of the commons created by our education funding system. When towns have level funded or even cut expenditures for their schools just to see their property taxes continue to rise, clarity about the limits to what can be accomplished by reducing your own herds access to the common field emerges. You can influence your tax rate, but you can’t contain the expanding property tax burden at the local level. Until the legislature and the governor develop and pass education funding reform that sets limits upon what statewide property taxes will fund, property taxes will not be contained. Unless that is done based upon a clear understanding of what is adequate and equitable, not just what was spent last year, that system won’t be fair and won’t hold up in court. While more schools spend toward the mean, the disparity between the highest and lowest spenders is comparable to what led us to the Brigham decision, though now we spend almost 3x as much. Calling for voters to shoot down budgets will never work given our current system. This is not an easy problem to solve, but enough already with the feint at action.

    • Tom Anderson

      Heidi – absolutely well said. Our town and district has seen around 0% increase in spending over a number of years (thanks to the leadership of Brent Kay) but our school portion of our taxes rises every year. Brookfield is a small town with a small student population and as a taxpayer with no kids I am glad to support a functioning school system. I’m not happy supporting what seems to be a unsustainable and malfunctioning statewide system. Where is that “local control” everyone claims we have?


  • Christopher Daniels

    The headline should more accurately read “Vermonters Continue to Overwhelmingly Support Education Spending.”

  • Meg Streeter

    Wilmington and Whitingham school boards lowered total spending by 10% at our middle/high school with a 5% rise in spending at the elementary school. Property tax rates will rise 10% in Wilmington and 17% in Whitingham due to the education funding formula. We support our school boards and their drive towards excellence – they have kept spending essentially level while merging 3 school buildings into 2. We’ve done what the state board of education wanted yet there is no way our schools are equal to larger schools. The Brigham decision hasn’t worked here.

  • James Rude

    It would appear that many schools as well as town budgets have adopted a “base-line budget” philosophy, similar to how the federal government crafts their budget for each department. It goes like this: You take the prior years spending and adjust each major line item upward to account for inflation and new programs. Nothing is ever reduced and the cost keep climbing…usually beyond what the rest of us see as increases in our incomes. And we wonder why government continues to grow and becomes more intrusive in our daily lives.

  • Some not so random observations:

    Vermont’s education property tax is a statewide tax levied against a statewide grand list. The basic premise that flows from this is that every district with the same education spending per equalized pupil will see the same equalized property tax rate. But that equalized tax rate is modified by the common level of appraisal (CLA), and this means that town by town there is the appearance of different rates for equal spending.

    The CLA really doesn’t have anything to with your education spending and thus equalized tax rate. The CLA is a statewide effort applied on a town by town (not school district by school district) basis. The general concept behind the CLA is that every homestead in Vermont that has a free market value of (example figure) $200,000 will see the same education property tax rate for the same spending per equalized pupil.

    Your equalized education property tax rate is determined by education spending per equalized pupil. It is NOT determined by total budget expenditures. Thus if your district approves a level funded budget but the equalized pupil count goes down, then you will most likely see a property tax increase. On a statewide basis if the combined district budgets remained unchanged and the statewide equalized pupil count drops, then we will all most likely see an education property tax rate increase.

    The money needed to fund the income sensitivity is considered a negative revenue, and thus an increase in the income sensitivity can cause an education property tax increase.

    • Gary Dickinson

      I have never seen an equalized pupil, nor have I ever seen a education property tax bill reduced.

      • What is an “equalized pupil”? An equalized pupil in Vermont is an artificial construct developed to help guide education funding. Nobody has ever SEEN an equalized pupil for the simple reason this construct does not exist in general outside of funding.

        Vermont uses three different pupil counts, and each count measures something different for different purposes. There is “enrollment” which is the head count of students in the building as of October 1st of each year. There is the Average Daily Membership (ADM) which is a modified average of enrollments from the 13th to 30th day of the school year. And there is the Equalized Pupil which is a modification of the ADM averaged out over two years.

        • patricia jedlicka

          No matter how many times I hear this explained, or in what way it is explained, I still don’t understand. And I consider myself a 1/2 way intelligent person. Thanks for your effort to add clarity.

          • I’d be happy to try if you have a specific question, and I understand why it appears confusing. The biggest thing to understand is that the equalized pupil count is not an actual student head count.

        • Gary Dickinson

          Thanks for the informative explanation. Why isn’t actual “butts in seats” used as the metric for pupil count as opposed to the factored methods you described? Thank you in advance for your answer.

          • Adrienne Raymond

            The “equalized pupil” calculation attempts to recognize the varying costs of educating different groups of students. High school students are more expensive to educate than an elementary student and therefore are weighted more heavily. Those on IEP’s, coming from poor households, or homes where English is not the primary language are also weighted more heavily. It is an effort by the State to fund schools more equitably. It is worth reading the full explanation in Title 16 Chapter 133.

    • Matt Young

      So the moral of the story is just go ahead and approve all of the big education monopoly budgets because our higher taxes are caused by some arbitrary formula that’s out of our control…got it.

  • Owen Farnsworth

    Lincoln increased Per Student Spending by 10.4% Thank You Chittenden County for all your “Money from Heaven” needed to fund this increase.
    At town meeting, Lincoln’s school board proposed increasing the per student spending by 10.4%, from $15,359 to $16957. Why? Well, one reason was because they could. The legislature encouraged such an increase by raising this years per student spending ceiling by 14.4% from $15,195 To $17,386. Note: above that amount, the state penalizes the town by doubling the tax rate. Basically, in this sense, the school board’s 10.4% increase was simply following the legislature’s lead.
    Lincoln’s town meeting approved the increase. Why? Well, for one reason, most of the voters could do so without any significant increase in their taxes. Those whose school taxes are based on income will see a school tax rate increase by only 3/100’s of a percent. Their tax rate will go from 2.83% to 2.86%. For a family income of $75,000 the tax increase will be $22.50.
    On the other hand, those of us who pay based on property value should have seen a tax rate increase of 6.8%. But, we are “lucky”. The state determined Lincoln’s property values have decreased by 3% over the past year, so our tax rate was decreased to 3.8%. For me, losing $7,080 in property value saved $110 in school taxes!
    Lincoln’s new school budget raised teacher’s salaries by 8.3%. The budget shows an increase in total salaries and benefits of 10.7%. On the other hand, as senior citizens, we will see no increase in our Social Security Benefit.
    Democrat Representative Dave Sharpe is Chairman of the House Education Committee. He is also a retired teacher and member of the teacher’s union. Like all House committee chairpersons, he controls what will and won’t be discussed by the committee. He spoke at Lincoln’s Town Meeting. He was highly critical of Gov. Phil Scott’s proposals to rein in school spending and property taxes. So, we will need to wait and see what his committee does to reduce this runaway school spending before next year’s election.

  • Tim Vincent

    School spending will continue lurching out of control as long as there is the aberration of the statewide property tax.
    And since 80-90% of tax “payers” receive the prebate, increased taxes that they don’t have to pay is fine with them.
    Send everyone their full tax bill and watch the budgets go down.
    Voters can vote down budget after budget and the property taxes will go inexorably up.
    “Local control” is as big a myth as the “flinty independent Vermonter.”