Cutting Class
 Declining enrollment, rising school spending: The data behind the crisis.
Investigation by Amy Ash Nixon, Diane Zeigler & Hilary Niles

Shrinking Student Population

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.

Demographic Realities

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.

State Tries to Curb Spending, Consolidate Districts

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.



Grants And Phantom Students Subsidize Small Schools

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.




Supporting Data


  1. Walter Maxwell :

    It’s just what the UN wants. Agenda 21 is for the ivory tower. period . As who you voted for swore. Cheers, globalist’s!

  2. Bill Dunnington :

    Great article – and research.

    Scary implications for schools, communities and the State’s economy.

  3. Andy Davis :

    Is there any data on the number of school age children in Vermont currently opting for private, parochial, independent and homeschool? These options seem to be growing in Windham County. Does anyone know these numbers? Do they have any significance? I would guess that the public school system would want to know why students and families leave the system. There must be an economic impact on public school populations and state aid formulas.

  4. Irene Stewart :

    Congratulations, VT Digger. This is the best, most informative and well done report on the costs of education in Vermont. I have never seen it presented so well. I have sent it to everyone that I have discussed the ever increasing education costs in VT, so that they will also e-mail it to their friends and neighbors. Thank you very much!

  5. Phyllis North :

    Great information illustrating our educational, demographic, and taxation challenges. We need to have a debate about all of this because we cannot afford to keep doing things the way we have been doing them. The old legislative approach of boosting spending as desired by the advocates and coming up with schemes to raise taxes, especially on income, won’t work when people are leaving the state due to taxes and when jobs in rural areas are disappearing.

  6. Ken Hertz :

    “Nationally, Vermont has the highest per pupil spending and the lowest student-to-staff ratio.”

    How about the student-to-teacher ratio? If that is closer to the national average, do we have an excess of non-teachers on staff? Or are the non-teachers essential for our low population density?

    • walter moses :

      Good thought. I’ll bet that student-teacher ratios are quite a bit different from student -staff ratios. Would be interesting to know.

  7. Thank you. This is an excellent piece on a very complex and troubling issue in Vermont.

  8. Mike Ryan :

    Brilliant. This was badly needed. An excellent set of really relevant facts – not opinions and very well presented. Congratulations VTDIGGER.
    It now begs the question as to why the response from Montpelier is so weak since they all said that they heard the message from the voters in November. We all know that 80% of Education spending in VT is made up of salaries and benefits for teachers and para – educators. It is not really surprising that the NEA is fighting to hang on to what they have gained over the years whether it is fair to the other 98% of Vermonters or not. Our legislators need to grow a spine, get back to work and really fix this crisis. Campaign funding from the NEA can’t be worth that much, My guess is that if it is not fixed many of these legislators will be replaced next time around no matter how much NEA funding they receive. The NEA should not be at the table unless there are representatives from VT taxpayers who do not receive income sensitivity also at the table; that might restore some balance.

  9. James Rude :

    A very good report! But it still begs the question: Why aren’t my property taxes going down?

  10. John Perry :

    Well, well. Congratulations on a totally backward-looking data analysis. Did anyone notice that the Pre-k to 5 group is increasing. Did anyone look at the projections by the VT Health Dept, the VT Education Dept, and the US Census, that show VT’s school-age population INCREASING for the next 20 years ??? Are we going to tear down schools and consolidate, only to have to build all new schools??? How is this anything but a Boondoggle???

    The big school in the boonies. What a great plan for the future.

    Rather, let’s just turn the schools into prisons, hire guards instead of teachers, and short circuit the school to prison pipeline. You think bigger is better?

    • Ed Letourneau :

      I live in a town where the pre-k to 5 group is increasing. Its because people are moving here because they have used up their 5 years of welfare in neighboring states, and Vermont has very good benefits if you don’t want to work.

  11. Sam Miller :

    Certainly this is the best, most informative study I have seen. Still it seems a foundation begging for more information: (1) Federal mandated expense, (2) the unfunded liability for teacher retirement and (3) cost per pupil/teacher.

  12. Julia Purdy :

    Invaluable. Investigative reporting at a high level. Now, how can I get it to stop loading so I can scroll and use the interactive feature?

  13. Julia Purdy :

    Yes, that is the conundrum, all over the nation. What to do with an unused building? When Lower Granville closed its one-room school several years ago, the town offices took the space.
    The time-tested Yankee tradition is to avoid waste. You never know when you might need that item again. Especially with capital improvements like buildings, unless it has been condemned or damaged beyond repair, don’t tear it down!
    Everything goes in cycles. There can always be a reshuffle off in the future when the school is once again needed as a school.

    • Megs Keir :

      The use of (or, in current parlance, the “re-purposing” of) school buildings is a fairly unexplored opportunity: with their central location, how about considering use for senior housing, local health clinic, spaces for small business start-ups, studio space, etc. This could be a multi-beneficial effort to revive village downtowns. Small elementary schools could stay open using only that portion of the building they deemed necessary, and develop a re-purposing program for the other part of the building. There might even be grants available, and if not, then there ought to be….(through non-profits).

  14. Seth Henry :

    I think it is somewhat misleading to cast so much light on small school grants and
    phantom pupils as if these are major cost drivers. The small schools grants are .4% of the total spending. In contrast the gap between Education Spending per Equalized Pupil and actual expenditures is about 500M per year. So while small schools are receiving about 7.5M in relief from the formula through the small schools grant, there is another 490+M being exempted from the spending formula. Further ‘digging’ is required here.

  15. Janice Prindle :

    The tenor of some of the comments here suggests a deep ignorance of how schools work — blaming the NEA for the numbers of teachers relative to declining enrollment, for example. Teachers don’t determine per pupil ratios, and teachers most certainly do get laid off, or reduced in hours. What determines their numbers, bottom line, is the distribution of pupils within a school, from grade to grade, along with state requirements for subjects taught, and the particular needs of the school’s special ed students..And an overlooked factor: the size of the classroom itself can determine staffing needs for a grade or course. Despite overall declining enrollment, populations fluctuate grade to grade, year to year.

    Likewise, the NEA is not to blame for the fact that most school spending is on teacher salaries and benefits.It should be obvious that if we have schools, we have teachers. I’m sure the biggest expense in hospitals is for medical staff –DUH.

    Look closer at that spending, and it’s my understanding that most of it is not salary increases but the cost of health care insurance. And there are strong public policy reasons for seeing that the people who teach and care for children every day have good health care. If we could get the factor out of medical care, education would be a lot less expensive. Note that education is not a profit-making profession for teachers (if you add up the hours in planning, grading, continuing professional studies, etc. outside of school hours, including vacations, teachers make not much more than minimum wage). It is for the testing industry, and the tech industry, though.

    • walter moses :

      Thanks Janice, you are totally correct.

  16. Cynthia Browning :

    This is extremely useful — to have all this material pulled together in one place.

    But to my mind one omission is how the cost of state policy priorities that have been put into the Education Fund has increased over the same period. Right now the Current Use property tax subsidy program costs about $45 million in lost tax revenue to the EF and the Income Sensitivity property tax subsidy program costs the EF around $147 million. That is $200 m of cost to the EF that is going to state tax equity priorities rather than to education spending.

    I bet that when these programs were shifted from the General Fund into the EF they cost perhaps $25 million and $60 million respectively. As property tax rates grow, the costs of such subsidies also grows, creating a kind of vicious cycle.

    Whatever they started out at, the current burden of almost $200 million on the EF means that property tax rates are some 20 cents higher than they otherwise would have been.

    Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

    • Phyllis North :

      You are right about these programs and the vicious cycle they are creating. The property tax burden is rising quickly for those who are not in current use or not getting income sensitivity: the owners of nonresidential property and homeowners with household incomes over $90,000. No wonder businesses are complaining and higher income people are moving to Florida

  17. Megs Keir :

    Good to see real numbers. Some clarifications and further analyses are needed to continue to more fully understand the real cost-drivers and where true savings may be found.
    One statistic that can be misleading is the staff to student ratio. The many well-intentioned federal and state mandates add many staff to our education system. With required para-educators and specialists, our staff:student ratio is much higher than class size.
    Example: In an elementary school with 6 classroom teachers, with an average class size of 20 (1:20 ratio), a typical school might have a total staff count of 16 (not 6): principal, special educator, language specialist, 4 one-on-one mandated aides,and part time staff in guidance, nurse, kitchen, custodial, art, music, physical education equivalent to a 3 more in that count. This would be an additional 10 staff, or a total of 16, making the ratio of 1 : 7.5, which sounds very high. So, here is a place where statistics can be misleading, if not more fully understood.

  18. Phyllis North :

    Teachers deserve good health care, but what will happen when the school districts have to start paying the Obamacare excise tax on teachers’ health care starting in 2018? This could be very bad for taxpayers.

  19. Moshe Braner :

    Displaying the “income sensitivity” impact as a negative number is a political, not factual, statement. The underlying assumption is that paying by property value is the correct amount, and anything else is a subsidy that needs to be made up. It is just as valid to say that payment should be by income, and the lower percentage of income that is typically paid by those with high incomes, who pay by property value, is a loss to the fund, that is made up for by higher payments from those who pay by income.

    The “interactive charts” are not all that interactive – repeating the same info in a pop-up as is already being displayed. Moreover, some of these charts never finish loading and don’t fully display (let alone “interact”) when I open them in Firefox. Most of them would be more useful as plain non-interactive images.

    The “Education Fund Growth” spiral-bubbles chart is truly atrocious: it does not do the main thing a chart is supposed to do: display the quantities visually. The “spiral” attribute is nothing but eye candy. I’ve saved this chart as an example to show students and co-workers how NOT to design a chart!

    • Phyllis North :

      “Displaying the “income sensitivity” impact as a negative number is a political, not factual, statement. The underlying assumption is that paying by property value is the correct amount, and anything else is a subsidy that needs to be made up.”

      Take a look at the Legislature’s Education Fund balance sheet. It shows income sensitivity payments as a loss the fund. Financial experts have concluded it is a subsidy.

  20. Grant Reynolds :

    Those are about the staff numbers in our school, except that we don’t have 20 in a class, even though all are multiple grade levels. We have more like 10-12. But that illustrates the point: it takes a certain number of people to run an elementary school, regardless of the number of students (at least within a wide range). Look at that “staff” and figure out who you would lay off to save money! We also have large – for us – classes coming on. We have 15 3 year olds in town. By the time they are in kindergarten we will have 60 or more in the school, instead of 45. For some of you, those numbers are a reason to close our school. For us, they are a blessing. What mother wouldn’t rather have her young child go to a small school rather than a big, “efficiient” one, where they would be lost?

  21. Rep. Laura Sibilia :

    This is an excellent piece, but as some have noted, it is important to note this focus is on approximately 5% of the student population.

    These are the students for whom the promise of Brigham is most likely not being met in terms of opportunity. Which would be illegal.

    So that requires urgent action.

    This is NOT, however, the place where property tax savings will be found. The fact still remains that the data in Vermont shows we spend MORE per pupil in our larger schools. Which also happens to be where the other 95% of the students are.

  22. John Grady :

    As long as equalized per pupil spending is looked at instead of actual per pupil spending nobody will get a clear picture of the actual cost.

    Actual per pupil spending is easy to calculate. Take the school budget and divided by the number of children, not equalized pupils. Use the actual number of humans and divide the budget by that.

    Remove the pre-school day-care children and that cost to get a clear picture of k-6 or k-8 spending. Adding bunch of pre-school children to a school distorts the real cost per student.

    One child counts as one student.
    They don’t count as 1.25 pupils.

    The NEA has given the population on snow job.

  23. Angelique McAlpine :

    I am confused about why towns that tuition all of their students are allowed to use phantom students. That seems like an oversight in statute.

  24. Tiki Archambeau :

    Wow, VTDigger! This is fantastic! You’ve set a new bar in reporting here in Vermont.

    This is your future. Keep doing this kind of work and you will not only set a high bar, but lead every other outlet in meaningful analysis. Leave breaking news to the others. These data can support a flurry of articles on their own!

    Keep up the great work!

  25. Jay Eshelman :

    Re: “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.

    With all due respect to Ms. Holcombe, who has the unenviable task of trying to improve student performance and lower education costs in a primarily monopolized education system, the decline in student enrollments is the result of our schools.

    The most important considerations families address when deciding where to live are the availability of good jobs and the quality (i.e. high performance and low cost) of the community education system.

    When businesses decide where to locate, not only do they consider the cost of local taxes, they assess and quantify the training of the local workforce.

    I know this because I served on a local school board, I’m a local employer, and my children attended our local public school system.

    We’re now experiencing generational dysfunction. Poorly educated parents are raising poorly educated children. And those kids who are well educated have no incentive to stay in Vermont. My kids are UVM graduates, they’re now grown professionals and they have little interest in Vermont, except as a nice place to visit Mom and Dad.

    So, not only do I disagree with Ms. Holcombe’s perspective, it’s undeniably clear to me that Vermont’s education system has virtually everything to do with its declining populations.

    Here’s another case in point: a business colleague forwarded me this local real estate promotion.

    “…While house is close to Saxtons River, it is located in the town of Westminster, making a voucher for school choice available for middle school age children.”

    While Westminster’s K-6 education program has lost more than 40% of its public school enrollments in the last 20 years, this explains why Westminster’s 7th & 8th grade enrollments are consistently 20 to 30 percent higher than its K-6 monopolized program. Imagine if school choice was prevalent throughout Vermont.

    As long as education special interest groups, as represented by Ms. Holcombe’s leadership, refuse to acknowledge the substantial effect our monopolized education system has on our communities and deny the benefits provided by school choice vouchers (i.e. Tuitioning), Vermont’s communities will continue to languish and no amount centralized education governance is going to reverse the dysfunction and population decline. If anything, continued centralized planning and legislated consolidation will only result in continued centralized and consolidated dysfunction.

  26. Julian Portilla :

    Thanks for some great reporting.

    I’m left wondering how our cost increases compare nationally. In other words, are the dynamics that are unique to Vermont driving up costs or are there other factors that we share with the rest of the nation, rising health care costs for example? If it’s the latter then we need to understand the drivers of increased cost before we propose solutions. Understanding the real drivers of costs and understanding how schools that manage to keep costs down are going to allow us to create responsive solutions rather than creating new problems.

  27. Great analysis! Thank you.

    Perhaps it is time to start thinking outside the box, or school building, so to speak.

    Schools are not day care centers. I recognize that they serve an important function in socializing young human beings but, thanks to the internet, interactive educational software and testing AND grading software (that takes a huge workload off the teachers), two days a week could be easily eliminated from the teacher work load. As long as their salaries intact, that would constitute a raise. With no threat of lowering their income, I’m certain educators would applaud this prudent move.

    Prior to the school year, the teachers can record their classes according to a syllabus which the students would access on their two non-school building days with required learning activities. Computer cams and passwords can take care of the “attendance” issue.

    Millions of dollars in unspent fossil fuel and bus costs, as well as school heating costs, would be saved. I emphasize that, since the amount of student learning is the same or greater, and the teachers are responsible for ensuring the students get it, said teachers should not have their salaries reduced one penny!

    It’s TIME to make use of the internet to save energy and money,

    For those concerned about “unsupervised children” at home while mom and dad are working, I repeat, schools are not there to supervise children, they are there to teach and socialize them, period.

    At any rate, all Vermont communities would quickly come up with a way to deal with that issue.

    The 21st century is here. Let’s make use of the technology it has brought us to make our lives more productive, less wasteful and since we can eliminate a lot of highway time, less accident prone too!

  28. Jan van Eck :

    The unfunded future liability is what is going to sink you. There is not enough money printed to pay it.

  29. CJ Jones :

    The direction of the population “crisis” depends on which state agency you work for as pointed out here:

  30. The map titled “increase in education spending 2001-2014” is interesting. That fact that Supervisory Unions often transect county lines makes this data useless. County level mapping and Vermont school governance do not go well together. It also emphasizes one of the reasons why Act 64 needs to be implemented, too much bureaucracy at the local level. In fact if VT made 14 county school districts, the money saved and quality of school improvements would be enormous. Plus everyone could have a football team!

  31. Andy Davis :

    Is there any data on the number of school age children in Vermont currently opting for private, parochial, independent and homeschool? These options seem to be growing in Windham County. Does anyone know these numbers? Do they have any significance? I would guess that the public school system would want to know why students and families leave the system. There must be an economic impact on public school populations and state aid formulas.

  32. Charles Bergmann :

    A very useful report, particularly because it includes the numbers involved with the school age children decline as well as population decline. My experience with public school systems comes from my wife and I raising four children in Seattle and Holland and allowing all of our children to find their way of succeeding in life which each did in a different way, though all have a college degree and all speak more than one language. While they went thru the public school system in Seattle I learned that many, particularly in minority families, would have preferred vouchers so they could afford to send their children to parochial schools, which offered a more disciplined education for many than found in the public schools. A huge amount of money was wasted there on busing, which will occur more and more if Vermont consolidates its’ schools. When I lived in Switzerland there were excellent, very small schools in mountain villages. The whole issue of how to best get an education for life may not be easy but one tends to feel that one must have faith in the individual student and individual families. My feeling is that the property tax is a poor way to raise money because it often has no connection to how much income a property owner may have in a given year which an income tax does measure in a better way. Again, thank you for the research.

  33. Brianne Goodspeed :

    I have this same question too. It seems to be the same trend in Windsor county. Many families seem to be opting out of the public school system and it would be worth understanding the relative impact of that on declining enrollment and the reasons why so many families are choosing this.



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