Declining enrollment in Vermont’s public schools is at a breaking point: The state’s student population has dropped by 21,000 since 1997, and population projections show continuing declines through at least 2030.
Meanwhile, school staffing levels have remained relatively constant, and per-pupil costs and education spending have continued to increase, driving up property taxes.
Nationally, Vermont has the highest per pupil spending and the lowest student-to-staff ratio. Between 2000 and 2012, Vermont and North Dakota lost more students (by percentage) than any other states, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The student enrollment decline in Vermont mirrors a trend in population projections from the U.S. Census Bureau. The data show that the number of working age adults and taxpayers in Vermont will also continue to drop through at least 2030.
The demographic and economic realities confronting Vermont’s public education system have been the focus of much debate in Montpelier this session. The Vermont Legislature is looking at ways to relieve pressure on taxpayers and improve educational opportunities for students who are in rural school districts with shrinking resources.
The House of Representatives has passed H.361, which puts a 2.95 percent cap on school spending. The bill is now being considered in the state Senate.
The legislation mandates that the state’s 277 school districts consider merging into larger integrated education systems with a minimum of 1,100 students by 2019.
The last time Vermont reduced the number of districts statewide was in 1892 when some 2,700 districts were consolidated into about 300 districts.
Rebecca Holcombe, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education, says the debate at the state level needs to be as much about rural economics as rural education.
“What our current demographic trends suggest is that we are looking at a future with both fewer children and fewer taxpayers statewide,” Holcombe said in a memo to lawmakers. “If we do nothing, we will lose many of our schools, particularly in our less affluent communities, after paying a high price and in some cases, not educating our children as well as we could.”
Many rural communities have lost “crucial businesses,” and as a result there has been a demographic shift, she says. Families with children — and taxpayers — are also leaving these areas.
“You could argue that in some of these towns, if they were on their own, their schools would already be gone … they are losing families for reasons that go far, far beyond our schools,” Holcombe said.
The state helps keep small schools open through a grant program and a “phantom student” formula that allows schools to claim more students than are actually enrolled. Through this hold-harmless formula, the state cushions small schools from increases in the local property tax rate.
Holcombe says even with state supports, many schools won’t survive demographic and economic trends facing small communities.
“We’re kidding ourselves if we think that’s going to stop what we’re seeing,” Holcombe said. “That’s the hard part. I’m deeply empathetic. This is a Vermont issue and we need to figure out how we want to respond statewide.”
Darren Allen, the Vermont National Education Association’s communications director, said eliminating the small school grants won’t save the state much money, but will have a huge impact on small school budgets and tax rates.
“It’s one of those things that when you strip it away it will have absolutely no noticeable effect on the state’s budget, but it will have a profound effect on dozens of communities across Vermont that will be faced with the choice of really, really, really rapid increases in their property tax bills, and it will save the system very little money,” Allen said. “Getting rid of that just makes it clear that the governor’s goal and others’ goal is to close Vermont’s small schools.”
Susan Clark is the town meeting moderator for Middlesex and has written extensively about how democracy and community intersect.
Schools, she says, are the center of small, rural towns. When schools close, democracy and community life suffer.
“I have no doubt that our small schools are one of the key reasons that Vermont is one of the most civically active states in the U.S.,” Clark said. “Ultimately, the school’s heartbeat pumps out not only educated students, but an energized civic community.”
Editor’s note: Data research and graphics by Diane Zeigler and Hilary Niles, story by Amy Ash Nixon.