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Guest editorial: Vermonters need to control school spending

There should be a warning sign attached to this year’s vote on the state’s schools’ budgets. It should read: “Costs are higher than expected, and will go higher still, despite the fact that we are educating fewer students. No end in sight.”
This week the state’s Joint Fiscal Office released a report that suggests the statewide property tax will jump an unbelievable 13.2 percent in fiscal 2015. The increase is predicated on next year’s budget increases being the same as this year’s — which is 5 percent.
This upward pressure on the statewide property tax is happening for a variety of reasons: First, the recession obviously affected the state’s grand list, which means that property tax values no longer generate the increases once enjoyed; second, Vermont families with incomes of $90,000 or less are protected from budget increases through the state’s income sensitivity program, which means they have little reason to be concerned about what the local school spends; and, third, school spending continues to go up.
A collision would seem to be in the offing.
The governor has pled with schools to limit their budget increases to 2.2. percent, or roughly the level of inflation.
That was ignored. From the schools’ perspective it wasn’t possible. Schools had put limits on their budgets in prior years, but this year’s budget efforts were a reflection of the built up pressures of past years denied.
Legislators of both parties are openly concerned about school spending and the impact large property tax increases will have on the state’s budgets and the overall economy.
And, voters will be increasingly alarmed as the imbalance begins to affect what people pay in taxes.
These budget concerns will also be matched with test scores that show little tangible improvement in student outcomes. We will be asked to pay considerably more for a school system that is among the nation’s most expensive, but one that doesn’t produce the results an expensive system should produce.
Together, this is a train wreck.
The problem has not changed. It’s the same as it was a decade ago when we began to acknowledge the effects of a 15 percent decline in our student population.
We knew then that we would need to cut spending. We knew that having the nation’s lowest student-teacher ratio would catch up to us. We knew that our gross expenditures would need to be adjusted to reflect fewer students.
The question we refused to answer was cut to what?
There was no plan.
There isn’t one now.
It doesn’t make sense to cut just for the sake of meeting budget needs. That would result in fewer people doing the same thing. That’s not a plan for moving ahead, and it’s not a plan for improved educational outcomes. It would meet lowest common denominator needs, nothing else.
It’s inevitable that we will evolve to an educational system in which fewer teachers are required to teach the students we have. That’s a guaranteed disaster if we keep the system we have. It’s an opportunity, however, if we devise programs in which technology can be used to supplement what the teacher offers and what the student needs. If the student becomes the center of the educational experience, the system can be made more efficient. This approach also includes the advantages of dual enrollment, and the exploration of pre-K education. It’s all about innovation.
This can be done. And, in Vermont, it can be done in a way that distinguishes our schools and the students they produce.
We don’t need to study why it is that with fewer students our school budgets continue to escalate. We know why. We know, too, that we can’t sustain budget increases at the 5 percent level for any length of time.
What we have yet to do is to acknowledge that the jig is up. But in so doing we cannot allow ourselves to buy into the argument that the answer is simply to do what we do now, but to do it by spending less. That’s not leadership and it has no basis in quality of instruction or student outcomes.
This is the challenge before the governor and his new cabinet-level secretary of education, Armando Vilaseca.
— Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger

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