Guest editorial: Don’t blame school boards for taxes

If you are a member of a school board, the chances are fair that you would like a moment or two of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s time, just enough to have him understand you don’t spend countless hours tweaking the numbers just to devise a budget that is beyond the taxpayers’ ability to pay.
As if you don’t have enough to do…
The governor’s complaint has become commonplace. School spending continues apace despite the fact that enrollments are in decline. Property taxes continue to escalate and school boards are the easiest to blame because they are the ones who approve the budgets. It’s the direct line between cause and effect, something voters (and politicians) understand.
Except it’s not that simple. School boards can approve small percentage budget increases and still incur the wrath of taxpayers who face a much bigger percentage jump in property taxes.
That happens, in part, because the recession caused property values to drop and it’s the property tax that makes up the greatest share of the state’s education fund. If property values decline then the tax needs to be raised to generate the same amount of income.
Vermont has also become more dependent on the property tax to pay for school spending. Eight years ago, the property tax generated 61 percent of our school funding needs; today, it’s 68 percent, the difference being the lack of revenue generated from the sales tax. Again, this is something beyond the control of any school board member.
The state also affects property tax rates when it chooses to ignore statutory requirements that require inflationary increases in the general fund transfer to the education fund. That happened in 2012, which cost the fund roughly $28 million.
And, as any school board member will attest, it doesn’t work to ask them to cut spending and then pass legislation that requires additional manpower.
At this point, most school board members are beginning to ache from the repeated political beatings for a $1.5 billion system that is beyond their control.
But as with all political conflagrations, each side has a constituency and each side holds an argument worth defending, however inartful the author(s) may be.
The governor speaks for the people when he states the obvious: We’ve lost 20 percent of our students in the last 10-15 years, our school budgets should be reflecting that decrease, rather than the increases we’ve seen.
The school boards can respond accordingly by saying: Set up a system that allows us to achieve these results, don’t force us to continue with what we have, leaving us few acceptable choices.
The public’s role is to say: The cost curve for our educational system needs to be bent toward something that is more affordable, and there is room in our system, given the amount we spend on education, to do better with what we have.
It’s when these forces (among others) come together that there is a chance for true reform.
Evidence of this is beginning to show itself in the Legislature. Compiling information as to the classroom sizes, student-teacher ratios, etc., is a start. Rep. Johanna Donovan, D-Burlington, and chair of the House Education Committee, has said she plans to introduce legislation that would provide a three-to-four-year plan as to how the state could vastly reduce the number of supervisory unions and school boards through consolidation. This consolidation would also broach the politically difficult topic of reducing the number of small schools in Vermont.
It may be that we’ve reached the point where tough discussions like this are possible.
If so, it’s a powerful discussion that will need the complete buy-in of the preK-16 educational community. They can’t afford for the discussion to go awry. Neither can the state. Each discussion that begins with a cut needs to end with an agreement as to how existing and future needs can be better met.
For example, one of the obvious targets in any true educational reform plan is the need to reduce the costs associated with low classroom enrollments in the state’s smaller schools. But through consolidation it may be that fewer adminstrators are better able to use their size as an innovative means to figure out how to use these small schools more effectively and efficiently. Consolidation can’t be seen as a zero-sum approach to an unavoidable challenge.
School board members can be the pivotal players in this all-important exercise. The governor has given them the prod, they need to respond, and then up him one.
Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger

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