Politically Thinking: Unification not high on Shumlin list

On Town Meeting Day, the voters of the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union approved the creation of a unified union district. Last week, the unified union was overturned on a reconsideration vote in Vergennes. After Vergennes voters rejected the proposal, ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien said that school consolidation would “be put to rest for a period of time in our district … it will hibernate for a while, if you will.”
ANwSU was the first district in Vermont to vote on consolidation since the Legislature passed Act 153, which provides property tax incentives to homeowners in districts that form unified unions. The next district that will vote on a similar proposal is Chittenden East, the towns of Bolton, Huntington, Jericho, Richmond and Underhill. If consolidation passes in Chittenden East on June 7, the idea may still have some traction, in spite of the result in ANwSU. If the voters of Chittenden East reject the unified union — either on June 7 or in a subsequent reconsideration vote — it could be some time before another district presents its voters with a similar proposal, in spite of the tax breaks provided in Act 153.
Regardless of the outcome of the June 7 ballot in Chittenden East, school finance reform is unlikely to be a priority in Montpelier in the next few years. When Jim Douglas was governor, the issue was high on the legislative agenda because the governor put it there. Douglas included proposals to give the state more control over local school budgets in nearly every one of his annual messages to lawmakers.
Although House and Senate Republicans continue to speak in favor of the proposals Douglas offered — for example, mandatory caps on year-to-year increases in school budgets — the Republicans don’t have enough members in the House or Senate to make school finance a salient issue. And the Shumlin Administration’s priorities are in other areas, such as health care, energy, economic development and broadband. No proposals for major changes in the school finance system will come from the governor in 2012.
The key budget issues for the 2012 legislative session will involve health care, other human services programs, and transportation, all areas in which the state budget receives substantial support from federal funds. While Congress and the Obama Administration will continue battling over the federal budget right up until the August debt ceiling deadline, whatever package emerges from those negotiations will almost certainly include substantial reductions in federal grants to the states for Medicaid, other health programs and highways. Next year’s legislature may well have to consider increases in the income tax, gasoline tax, and DMV fees to make up for lost federal funds. With the focus on budgets for health, human services, and transportation, changes in the school finance system are not likely for the 2012-13 school year.
Local school boards will continue, as they have in recent years, to chip away at their budgets, by reducing some elective and extracurricular programs, and by not replacing staff who retire or resign. If fuel prices stay high, the cost of running school buses and heating school buildings will place a special strain on budgets. Most school districts will likely muddle through. The real challenges will come in those districts such as Addison, Leicester, Sudbury and Whiting, which have very low enrollments that are projected to decline further. These districts could face either significant property tax increases or, as was the case in Hancock and Granville, proposals to close the elementary school and tuition students to nearby towns.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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