Commentary

David Kelley: Governor’s plan good politics, not good policy

Editor’s note: This commentary is by David F. Kelley, an attorney and a co-founder of Project Harmony (now PH International) who is a member of the Hazen Union School Board.

I remember an old anti-war song from the ’60s that asked “where have all the flowers gone?” The answer was that they had “gone to graveyards, every one” and it is starting to feel like school boards are headed in the same direction.

I like Montpelier. My grandfather was the state treasurer. My dad was deputy commissioner of agriculture and I was the attorney for the Vermont Ski Areas Association for 25 years. But lately trips to Montpelier have felt like visiting Alice’s Wonderland. One reason is because I serve on a school board and the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA) in Montpelier, which is supposed to represent local school boards, has just spent the last two years sending out a small army of consultants on a mission to dismantle local school boards. VSBA isn’t even paid by local school boards anymore. The check is coming from the superintendents’ offices, who they have represented quite effectively.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when VSBA began promoting a shift of responsibility for health insurance plans from local school boards to the state. But I must admit I was a little amazed when the president of VSBA recently wrote: “Quite frankly, we volunteer school board members are in over our heads negotiating this health care transition.” You would think we were talking about quantum physics and anti-matter, not health insurance plans. Thank God we have those folks who have been designing health care plans in Montpelier to save us. I forget how many millions they wasted a few years ago.

The need for redesigning teacher health insurance plans is obvious. With Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” kicking in, the proposal to increase deductibles and create health savings accounts (HSAs) makes eminent sense. But there is no reason it can’t be handled by local school boards. Insurance carriers (presumably Blue Cross) can send out a recommended template or templates for deductibles, co-pays and health savings accounts to supervisory union business managers. It isn’t quantum physics.

There are several problems with the governor’s proposal:

First, what assurance is there that the state, once it has control of all of this money and the contracts that go with it, will continue to use savings to fully fund the HSAs? What kind of a statewide collision is looming when the governor finds a need to put that money somewhere else?

If anyone believes responsibility for spending millions of our property tax dollars is best left to Montpelier, as opposed to our neighbors, then I know of a company that owns a bridge in Brooklyn — and have I got a deal for you.

 

Second, the entire world of health care is fluid right now. Obamacare itself may be history next year, but once the responsibility for management of this money is shifted from local school boards to the state it is gone forever, and one more big piece of our schools and community is taken out of the hands of the people who are paying the bills and who are most connected to the expense.

Third, the same health care plans and savings can be implemented or adopted at the district level or the supervisory union level. In that case, to the extent that there are genuine savings to be recognized, they are guaranteed to go toward property tax relief, as opposed to Montpelier’s latest whim.

I am surprised that so many Republicans would jump on this bandwagon. Most Republicans I know profess to have faith in grassroots democracy. Once this authority and the responsibility for this spending is shifted from local school boards to Montpelier, it is gone forever and it becomes one more piece of our lives that is managed by people who aren’t our neighbors.

The notion that if we give this power to the state and save $26 million plays well in the papers. The governor gets to create a perception of fighting to save money against those awful tax and spend spendthrifts in the Legislature. It is good politics. It isn’t good policy. If anyone believes responsibility for spending millions of our property tax dollars is best left to Montpelier, as opposed to our neighbors, then I know of a company that owns a bridge in Brooklyn — and have I got a deal for you.

The savings the governor is talking about can easily be achieved at the local level, with far greater assurance that those savings will be spent prudently. Importantly, we could be shaping much wiser public policies if there was an association in Montpelier that actually represented local school boards. Some of the hardest-working and most capable public servants in our state serve on local school boards. We are in the process of throwing away much of that talent and leadership. The refrain from that anti-war song from the ’60s asked “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” It is a good question.

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  • Peter Allan Burmeister

    A tiny bribe that will not materially reduce anybody’s taxes enough to be noticed will result in yet another power grab by government and a further reduction of local control. When was bigger ever better? When did central control ever truly reduce costs? This is a blatant attempt to further centralize control of the state’s destiny in an attempt to convince heavily burdened taxpayers that someone is trying to “help.” Beware of Montpelierites bearing gifts.

  • Arthur Hendrickson

    Very well explained. However, this is all about busting a union and fighting over the teachers loss. The workers in Vermont are not being paid what they are worth. The problem is, where have all the unions gone? When the unions are strong the economy is strong because even those not unionized ride on the organized coat tails. No one especially Governor Scott is gaining anything by lowering the teachers quality of life.

    • Tim Vincent

      With the lowest student-teacher ratio (10:1) in the nation , and declining enrollments, there are too many teachers.
      Reduce their numbers, pay the survivors more and give the rest back to the taxpayers.
      As for strong unions begetting a strong economy:
      Take a look at France.

      • Glenn Thompson

        When I went through the public school system (in Essex) during the 50’s and early 60’s the student-teacher ration was approx (30:1) and those teachers had no teacher aids, etc. What has changed where we now need to have such low-teacher ratios along with aids?

    • John farrell

      For way too long the NEA has dictated the terms of teachers contracts. Vermont teachers are overpaid compared to other states. Period!

  • David Schoales

    “The savings the governor is talking about can easily be achieved at the local level, with far greater assurance that those savings will be spent prudently.” This pretty much says it all. The governor’s idea is not meant to save taxpayers, it is pure political move meant to weaken unions. Collective bargaining is based on the First Amendment rights to assemble and petition for redress of grievances. Do we want further erosion of our Constitutional rights?

    • Glenn Thompson

      “The savings the governor is talking about can easily be achieved at the local level, with far greater assurance that those savings will be spent prudently.”

      That would have worked years ago when “local control” had more influence in setting school policy and determining a school budget. Not so much today when the power has shifted to Montpelier and the NEA!

  • John Freitag

    David,
    The Hazen School Board is fortunate to have someone of your ability and talents and time to give. This is not often the case. What is clear from the article in today’s VtDigger “Unions Vs School Boards – Who has the Upper Hand” is that the VTNEA provides seven full-time staff for their side of negotiating contracts. Each of these are paid around $150,000 plus benefits, which is roughly what we pay the Governor of our State. It is, if you as they say follow the money, an unequal playing field.
    The irony is that while the legislature finds it O.K. to mandate the elimination of local school boards via Act 46, whose value is extremely questionable, Democratic leaders are simply unable to see the value of consolidating negotiations for teachers health benefits where there is both clear savings and a benefit for our children in allowing teachers, school board members, and administration for focus their energy and talent on what is good educationally for our children.

  • Gerry Silverstein

    “…but once the responsibility for management of this money is shifted from local school boards to the state it is gone forever, and one more big piece of our schools and community is taken out of the hands of the people who are paying the bills and who are most connected to the expense.”

    The State of Vermont, through income sensitivity “prebates” that reduce property taxes for about 80% of Vermonters earning up to $141,000, is co-employer with all School Boards in the State. It makes no sense to argue that only the community has a direct connection to teacher compensation packages.

    The State of Vermont is spending 1/3rd of its budget on public school education and, in order for that spending to be sustainable over the long-term, the State must have a role in determining what compensation packages are fair AND sustainable.

    • walter carpenter

      “the State must have a role in determining what compensation packages are fair AND sustainable.”

      But teachers are not state employees. And who determines what is “sustainable?”

      • Jason Brisson

        “But teachers are not state employees.”
        They are not, but it seems to be the natural outgrowth and unintended consequence of Act 60.
        “And who determines what is “sustainable?””
        The wallets of VT taxpayers.

  • Tim Vincent

    Still driving that myth of “local control.”
    Once Vt. got Act 60 and it’s statewide property tax, local control became as mythical as the “flinty independent Vermonter.”
    Pile on a bunch of Montpelier mandates and pressure from a statewide union and local school boards are reduced to calling meetings to discuss the paperclip budget.

  • Margaret Maclean

    How does the VSBA go about deciding to take a stance on such issues?

    Does it poll it’s membership?
    Does it rely on regional board members to poll local members and get their opinions?
    What engagement strategies take place prior to taking a stance on a particular issue?

    Who is calling the shots here? The dues paying boards or a few players?

    As a membership organization surely it has structures for such decision making that are democratic and inclusive.

    From communicating with numerous school board members statewide related to Act 46 it is clear they where not consulted prior to the VSBA becoming a champion of the law and a major player in its implementation.

    Sure events were held – after a decision had been made – to sell Act 46 but these events were not engagement events that heard and respected the input of school board members. They were events designed to give school board members their marching orders.

    I am wondering if the same is true in this instance?

    I can see why the many school boards whose opinions differ from the stance the VSBA takes on this or other issues are considering withdrawing their dues and looking to invest them into an organization that respects and responds to the views of its members.