Editorial: Voters’ message on school budgets — Keep moving forward

School budgets around the state, for the most part, fared better this year than last when 34 budgets were defeated in town meeting balloting. Why the difference? Largely because the average school budget increase was held to just under 3 percent, compared to much higher increases in 2014.
But there is also the perception that the Legislature is responding to the changing landscape caused by the steep decline in the number of students in Vermont (it’s down 21,000 in the past two decades), the low teacher-pupil ratios and the consequent high per-pupil cost.
This past Thursday, the House Education Committee unanimously passed its “big bill” on education, H.361, which sets in motion measures that would encourage consolidation of small schools as well as the creation of larger school districts. If those measures meet with expected success, the annual savings could be between $25 million-$50 million statewide.
Consider the example of a proposed merged school at Pomfret and Bridgewater (just west of Woodstock). Those two towns voted at town meeting this week to form a joint school after years of discussion. Expected savings is substantial. Spending per equalized student is currently $15,309 for Bridgewater, which has 35 students K-6, and $15,840 for Pomfret, compared to what is projected to be $10,744 per equalized student under the combined school.
In a landscape where change comes slowly, that’s real.
So is the meat of what H.361 proposes to accomplish. The bill calls on school districts throughout the state to find economic efficiencies and savings for taxpayers as well as improved educational outcomes for students. One goal is to increase the teacher-pupil ratio to drive down per-pupil spending. The trick is to encourage school districts to do it on their own, rather than have it dictated to them. To that end, H.361 creates incentives for those schools and towns who seek mergers earlier than later; that is, the faster schools merge, the more financial incentive town taxpayers will see.
The benchmark is to create school districts that serve a minimum K-12 enrollment of 1,100 pupils. Within that district, elementary schools would be encouraged to merge to achieve maximum efficiencies and highest student outcomes.
Another aspect of the bill is placing a 2 percent cap on the tax rate increase per year for the next three years — a measure that sacrifices flexibility for mandated tax relief (or, rather, curtailing the increases).
Driving the changes to consolidation are two key provisions: restricting and phasing out small school grants and eliminating so-called “phantom students” — both of which are designed to protect smaller schools from sudden drops in student population and allow those schools to phase in budget changes.
Smartly, the bill does not do away with the small school grants entirely, but rather leaves those decisions up to each school district, and, importantly, it remains with the schools that merge; that is, the small school grant becomes part of the general revenue stream of the district within which any small school merges.
And while the bill puts pressure on small schools to merge with larger districts by July 1, 2019, there are exceptions, such as geographic necessity and high enough ratios and quality standards, to retain their grants, if approved by the Agency of Education.
While the savings to taxpayers in the Bridgewater-Pomfret merger is roughly 30 percent, it is shortsighted to consider that the major benefit. Rather, residents should also understand the academic benefits that accompany schools with more opportunities.
Closing a town school and merging with another is a difficult discussion, but it’s encouraging that it is one that is happening in an environment that is increasingly transparent and instigated by parents interested in the best possible educational outcomes for their children as much as it is by taxpayers seeking relief. Promoting that balance is essential as the Legislature continues to push forward this session with its effort to change Vermont’s educational system.
What Vermonters must also realize, and what they are beginning to understand through the year-long discussion on education reform, is that it’s not just the people of Bridgewater or Pomfret who pay that $15,000-plus per pupil cost, but all Vermonters. It’s a shared pool in which every Vermonter has a stake.
Addison County residents should take note. In a county with 23 towns, many of which have small schools, the questions posed by Pomfret and Bridgewater residents are ours as well. Surely, serious discussion of possible mergers should follow in the next few years.
But those discussions should not be undertaken with a feeling of dread, but rather with a sense of opportunity. It’s the opportunity of creating a more dynamic school system that offers more resources, student interaction, diversity and better educational outcomes that should be the real driver of change.
It won’t be easy. Closing a school that has been the bedrock of a community for more than a century is no small matter for any community. But the conversation doesn’t have to dwell on the loss. Town leaders need to also focus discussion on other ways those community centers can be employed to maximum benefit. Legislators need to incorporate that discussion in future conservations in Montpelier as well. Many of these small school buildings are excellent facilities that should be seen as valuable assets to the town and state. It’s our job to employ those assets in the smartest ways possible.
What we can’t afford to do, however, is interpret Tuesday’s town meeting results as taking pressure off the need for education reform. The need for change remains; Tuesday’s election that saw voter approval of school budgets in most districts across the state is a message that Vrmont is moving in the right direction, and that progress needs to keep apace.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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