Editorial: School budgets pass, signifying positive change

School budgets across Addison County and in most towns throughout the state received overwhelming approval at this year’s town meetings. According to the Vermont Superintendents Association, voters approved 183 district school budgets, while only 18 were defeated. That’s a noticeable difference compared to significant defeats for school budgets more than a decade earlier.
What’s changed? Many things, but chief among them are school boards that are proposing more conservative budgets that reflect declining enrollments. Of the four unified district schools in Addison County and Brandon, only one district (Otter Valley Unified Union School District) proposed an increase over the prior year’s budget — and that was held to 1.4 percent. The other three districts proposed decreases in spending ranging from 2.17 percent drop at Addison Central School District (Middlebury area), to 1.68 percent cut in spending for Addison Northwest (Vergennes), and an 8.42 percent drop in spending in Addison Northeast (though that’s just the ANeSU, and not the combined unified district which won’t have a consolidated budget until next year.) In addition to those cuts in spending, Act 46 offered early takers a staggered tax break starting at 10 cents the first year to 2 cents in the fifth year.
Another change is that Act 46 has been a somewhat unexpected success. With numerous school districts already having formed consolidated districts, this year saw another six unified districts formed out of the 10 voting on governance consolidation. Said another way, residents in 40 school districts voted for governance consolidation, while 13 districts voted against merging.
What’s encouraging about Act 46 is that school boards are thinking of new ways to provide better student outcomes. With district governance, a single board can look across the nine schools within the ACSU, for example, and see efficiencies gained by sharing resources and matching teachers to students in the most effective ways. Boards, quite simply, have more options to achieve improved outcomes.
This will likely be a short-term benefit, however. That is, once a level of cost-efficiency is gained it is unlikely those same gains can be expected the following year; and once the maximum efficiency is reached within these new parameters, taxpayers can expect to see annual expenses mirror the inflationary costs tied to education. But for the next few years, taxpayers whose districts have pursued school unification can expect modest efficiencies combined with stable tax rates.
Interestingly, Gov. Phil Scott voted against the school budget in his hometown of Berlin, suggesting that increases there had topped more than 5 percent. Scott had encouraged voters throughout the state to “do the math” when considering their school budgets. The perfect retort, however, was from a school board member who said he hoped the governor would be attending their next school board meeting to help them decide which budget items to cut. That’s where the hard work begins and where political theory runs into the real budget math.
The governor should seriously consider the challenge. He did, after all, make a political career as lieutenant governor of working in various businesses around the state to, as he said, spend a day walking in their shoes. School board members would be gratified to know he has spent a day in their shoes as well, particularly when asked to cut the budget while also improving student performance. We’re sure the governor would find that it’s easier to preach tough budget practices from the governor’s executive offices, than it is in the school board meeting room.
Angelo S. Lynn

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