Editorial: Fewer students, high taxes require thinking outside the box

Among the top 10 stories in Addison County this past year, financing our public schools ranks right near the top. Specifically, coming to terms with declining student populations, while still experiencing increased costs, is a conundrum that frustrates taxpayers, school officials, legislators and the governor’s office alike.
And for most Vermont communities, the trends aren’t favorable, which means it’s only going to get worse.
Really, you say? Surely, student populations will stabilize, our rural populations won’t continue to decline and we’ll once again hit that sustainable place where budgets go up modestly, property taxes are affordable, and the cost per pupil isn’t the shocking $16,546 it is today.
In our dreams. On the contrary, growth is not likely to come to most of rural Vermont. The growth centers in the state are our most urban places. Chittenden County tops the list, with its northern neighbor Franklin County hanging on to its coattails — courtesy of the interstate (making it an easy 20- to 30-minute commute into Burlington). Lamoille County is the other growing area, boosted by the capital influence in Montpelier, Barre and Waterbury, and the tourist draw in Stowe. Most other counties in the state are losing population and students. In 2012, the state had its first population drop since the 1940s, and the state has lost population three years in a row from 2014-2016.
The problem this poses for the state’s education funding is significant. Gov. Phil Scott addressed that at a recent education summit: “The root of the state’s school funding problem is that we have school infrastructure built to educate more than 100,000 students, but we currently only have 76,000 students statewide,” adding that “every dollar we spend on underutilized space in a public or independent school is a dollar that’s not being spent on a child.”
Addison County has been able to maintain its current population base, but we’ve seen our demographics age while younger families leave. While we’re doing OK, we teeter on the edge of what could be sustainable growth or slow decline.
One clear opportunity is creating school systems that rival the state’s best. That is, we should strive to be on par, or better, than the high standard set at Champlain Valley Union in Hinesburg.
That’s important for several reasons, but two are key to our future vitality:
• Property taxes are collected town-by-town, but pooled into a statewide fund to be doled out based on how many students each school has. While it’s an complex formula,” the basic premise is that schools get about $16,500 per pupil (the cost at Mount Abe is $16,932.) If you lose students, you lose funding; and when you gain students, the school gains funding. The closer a school is to its full capacity, theoretically, the more cost-efficient it operates, and the easier it is to plan for academic excellence. The obvious goal should be to attract more students to the point of full capacity.
• Addison County could benefit more than it does from Chittenden County’s employment base. In particular, the county’s northern towns (and school districts) could see growth as bedroom communities. That, in turn, could help local businesses grow — and spark new businesses to locate here. To do that those schools must be better than average. What we know is that excellent schools are magnets for young families; mediocre schools, on the other hand, send families looking elsewhere.
What to do?
First, we should all question whether it is wise to pour tens of millions of dollars into aging school facilities that were built 40-60 years ago for yesterday’s economy that is no longer the dominant force of our times. If school buildings pass their prime at 60 years, it’s time for residents to imagine how they might repurpose them (to retain value to the taxpayers) and yet build anew for students striving to succeed in tomorrow’s job market.
Lincoln resident Steve Harris broaches that idea in a community forum in today’s paper (see Page 5.) It is an interesting read with more than a few novel ideas, and we encourage readers in all school districts (because this is bigger than just the third bond vote to renovate Mount Abe’s building) to give it careful consideration.
Second, we must think outside the box. If current demographic trends continue, how long will we be able to support three union high schools in Addison County (and a fourth in Brandon that also serves Addison County towns)? Is high school consolidation in the cards 10, 20, 30 years down the road? If so, what will become of the facilities no longer used for education? Or perhaps the county’s high schools could specialize, creating fields of expertise — from mechanics and agriculture to robotics and artificial intelligence to communications, languages and international study. Or perhaps smaller hubs of specialized study could be an answer.
We don’t know, but maintaining the status quo for the next 50 years is not, by definition, forward-thinking.
Lastly, be open to possibilities. The world economy has changed. Our schools need to change with it. Plowing tens of millions into inefficient, outdated facilities may not only be the wrong answer, it might limit opportunities for decades to come.
— Angelo Lynn

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