Top 10, No. 4: State struggles to fund education as students decline and costs increase

In his first year in office Gov. Phil Scott has put a spotlight on a seemingly untenable problem: the state’s declining school enrollment and increasing school spending. Scott challenged state legislators and local school boards to come up with a sustainable solution.
“We must increase the value students see from the dollars we spend, while providing relief from costs that continue to grow faster than Vermonters can afford to pay,” Scott said at a Dec. 18 summit on education that drew more than 300 educators from around the state. He noted that per pupil education costs in the state have grown faster than even health care costs over the past 10 years — and health care, he noted, was seeing increased utilization, unlike the declining number of students we are educating.
Responding to the governor’s appeal and the realization that property taxes are growing at a rate that can’t be sustained, Addison County school boards set preliminary budgets that reflected steep budget cuts in staffing and some services. Addison Central Supervisory Union, representing Middlebury Union High School and the seven district towns, initially proposed a budget cutting $1.9 million and called for a cut in 14 teachers, a principal and 18 paraprofessionals. Good news (in the form of gaining 53 pupils in a change in the way the state figured pre-K students) reduced those cuts by $600,000 — requiring fewer proposed layoffs — but still the proposed reductions will be significant. The school districts in Brandon, Bristol and Vergennes areas also face tough budget numbers that will suggest similar cuts to staff and programs.
What’s driving the hard look at education spending is a continuing decline in student population, while costs per pupil continue to rise. The numbers are stark:
•  Vermont is currently losing 1,000 students per year and has lost 30,000 in the past 25 years. MUHS will see 50 fewer students next year.
•  While the number of students in the states’ K-12 schools dropped from 103,000 in 1997 to 76,220 in 2017, the number of school employees rose from 14,451 to 18,015.
•  Not surprisingly, Vermont’s staff to pupil ratio has declined from 6.67 staff per pupil to 4.23 per pupil, with Vermont having more staff per pupil than any other state in the nation, according to Suzanne Young, Gov. Scott’s Secretary of Administration.
•  The student demographic trends in the state mirror that of the workforce as well. The state loses 1,788 people between the ages of 20-64 each year. According to Young, since 2000, the state has 25,000 fewer people under the age of 20, but 60,000 more people over the age of 65. That declining workforce leads to declining revenue from the income and corporate tax revenue — putting an even greater strain on the state budget.
To counter those trends, the Legislature in 2016 passed Act 46, which encourages school districts to consolidate governance and budgets, which should — theoretically — make it easier for school districts to consolidate educational services down the road if that’s what boards determine is in their best interest.
The issue is compounded by the state’s need for a better-educated workforce, and the income equality gap for those without a post-secondary education. Businesses are reporting a lack of skilled and qualified candidates to hire, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe told education summit attendees, which puts the onus on educators and schools to get better at equipping students with the skills they need to enter the workforce. At the same time those without higher education are being left behind in a global economy that is increasingly displacing laborers with robots.
And that’s the conundrum Vermont faces: students need more and better education than ever before, but the rising costs of education and the lack of good-paying jobs once students graduate make the public investments ever harder to manage. It’s sure to be a dominant issue in the Legislature this session.

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