Editorial: State leaders off-base trying to change school finance now

School budgets across the state had a remarkable success rate this Town Meeting. Of 142 school districts facing budget votes on Town Meeting Day, 135 budgets were approved, two votes had yet to be tabulated as of mid-Wednesday, and only five were defeated. That 96 percent approval rate is one of the highest in recent times, making one question the wisdom of the Democratically controlled Legislature’s push for school finance reform.
That’s doubly true because any change to the school finance formula for 2019 would alter school budgets just passed by Vermont voters at Town Meeting. In other words, even though voters participated in this most direct of all democratic processes, the Legislature’s actions would change how the state funding would work for school budgets.
No one, of course, would say that the current formula is perfect and can’t be improved, but to rush a proposal this late in the session — and which might conflict with budget projections schools counted on for budgets recently passed — is bad form and will likely yield mixed, if not poor, results. Under one of the earlier proposals, middleclass Vermonters were expected to see their taxes jump significantly, as will some sectors of the business community. Testimony is demonstrating those points, which is turn has caused legislators to scale back the proposals’ scope.
Add to that the governor’s opposition, and it’s difficult to understand why legislative leaders continue to press the issue.
Moreover, what we currently have seems to be working. School spending statewide per equalized pupil is estimated to come in under 1 percent, with the rate of spending growth estimated at 1.5 percent — a full percent lower than the 2.5 percent goal Gov. Phil Scott’s administration had initially set.
What’s working is a sincere effort by school administrations to look across their district and determine what facilities can best be used, and how class sizes can be grouped in a more cost effective manner.
Addison County schools are a perfect example. In each school district personnel has been reduced to meet a parallel drop in students, yielding substantial savings. It’s part of the Act 46-school consolidation effort and legislators would be wise to let that process unfold before changing key financing components that would almost certainly upset established school budgets for the 2019 fiscal year.
Even more outrageous was Gov. Scott’s tone-deaf call, in the wake of town meeting results, requesting schools cut an additional $40 million.
Adam Greshin, Scott’s commissioner of finance, had the unpleasant task of trying to defend the governor’s request, nothing that while school districts across the state “worked hard” to reduce spending, and while the governor was “very impressed,” they still needed to do more.
Greshin explained in a VPR interview that school tax rates were projected to rise 5 to 6 cents on average next year, which was more than the governor thought Vermonters could afford (even though voters had just OK’d that amount.)
The backlash was immediate.
“If boards and administrators can’t prepare a budget that is then approved by voters, and have that be their budget, then that calls into question the integrity of the (democratic and town meeting) process,” Vermont School Board Association Executive Director Nicole Mace told VPR.
She’s absolutely right.
Furthermore, as Mace said, the primary reason education tax rates are going up so much this year is because Gov. Scott and the Legislature used one-time funds last year to reduce rates for the current tax year.
 Still, Greshin pressed the issue. “Getting to zero from 5 or 6 cents is going to be difficult,” he told VPR. “I don’t want to downplay the significance of that. But we think it can happen.”
Seriously? And we didn’t think the new marijuana laws went into effect until this coming July.
Angelo Lynn

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