Top stories of 2014: #8 — School budgets go down as call for tax reform grows

As in many past years, 2014 saw many Vermonters complain about their property taxes, and that portion of the tax that pays for education in particular. But as in most years, proposals for reform of school funding were put forward but not acted upon.
Still, residents in seven local towns indicated that they had had enough, and they rejected some proposed school spending plans on Town Meeting Day.
Ferrisburgh residents said no for the first time in recent memory to a proposed central school budget. The $3.62 million Ferrisburgh Central School budget proposal lost, 450-279, or about 62-38 percent. The budget called for an 11 percent spending increase, driven in part by a special education cost shift within Addison Northwest Supervisory Union.
But the board also proposed adding a new teacher and a modular classroom to help handle a large blended 5th- and 6th-grade class, a move that neither the FCS administration nor ANwSU officials endorsed.
That same day, Ferrisburgh voters joined those in the other four ANwSU towns (Addison, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham) in rejecting the $9.73 million Vergennes Union High School spending proposal, 961-747. If the budget had passed, it would have increased spending by about 2.4 percent. But the VUHS budget’s tax impact was projected to be more dramatic thanks to the school’s declining enrollment and a projected budget deficit of almost $548,000 that ANwSU officials said was due to unexpected special education costs. All five towns would have seen school taxes increase by more than 13 percent.
And down in Brandon, residents defeated a Neshobe Elementary School spending plan, but the vote was close — 638-576. The proposed $5,356,775 spending plan entailed a 2.3 percent increase and a 4-cent increase in the school tax.
What happened here was a reflection of news around the state. Vermont residents voted down 35 of approximately 250 school budgets that were on communities’ town meeting dockets — the largest number of failed spending plans since the advent of Act 68 in 2005. Legislators got to work on some legislation they hoped would lower school spending. One bill that would allow school districts to consolidate, thus saving on administration and some overhead, held promise for some.
They passed legislation that limited the increase in the fiscal year 2015 statewide education property rate to 4 cents, instead of the 7 cents that had originally been forecast.
With that concession in hand, and after some belt tightening, the three schools that had seen their budgets rejected went back to the voters.
In Brandon, only about 60 percent as many people showed up in late April to vote on a slightly scaled back spending plan, and it passed, 458-276. Ferrisburgh residents in mid-May supported a $3.5 million FCS budget proposal, 246-217, or about 53-47 percent, in the revote. The approved FCS plan represented about $120,000 less in spending, the major change being the board’s decision to scrap a plan to add a fourth teacher and a modular classroom to help handle a large blended 5th- and 6th-grade class.
And, by a vote of 687-584, ANwSU residents approved a VUHS spending plan of $9.42 million. The budget cuts would force district administrators to lay off the equivalent of five full-time instructional positions. ANwSU officials after the vote figured that the cuts would affect 11 staffers.
However, by this time, energy in the Legislature to reform school funding had faded, and a bill aimed at consolidating school districts failed to make it to the Senate in a timely manner.
School spending became an issue in the fall elections. And in early December the Middlebury selectboard gave its legislative delegation a brief but sharply worded wish list for the 2015 session; near the top of the list:education finance reform.
Selectboard members also urged the board to not only discuss — but also enact — some kind of education finance reform. Selectwoman Donna Donahue suggested the Legislature examine the comparatively low student-teacher ratios in Vermont and consider measures to increase those numbers. This would mean reducing personnel expenses at schools.
Sen. Chris Bray noted the Legislature’s ability to act on this subject is being affected by Vermonters’ apprehension (thus far) about consolidating schools and/or school districts, which could be another money-saver. And local control over schools has historically been a hallmark of the Green Mountain State.
Selectboard members warned they don’t want to see the problem passed on to a summer study committee by the end of the session. Selectman Gary Baker said he has heard the suggestion of a five-year study of the problem.
“To me, that’s unacceptable,” he said. “We’ll be broke by then.”

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