Senate Pro Tem Ashe meets with ANWSD board

VERGENNES — Vermont Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe, along with Addison County’s two senators, met with Addison Northwest School District board members Monday evening at Vergennes Union High School to explain the Legislature’s school funding plan in the context of their recent budget sent to Gov. Phil Scott.
Scott, who will make a decision by the end of Thursday on whether to accept the budget or again veto it, opposes the Legislature’s plan because it raises modest taxes to pay for the increased spending that voters across the state approved on Town Meeting Day.
Gov. Scott has maintained that the state should use one-time money (up to $55 million from the budget surplus through May) to keep taxes from rising this year.
Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison County, said the county delegation and Sen. Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, took the opportunity to address the school board for two reasons: to explain the reasoning behind their proposal and to hear concerns and direction from school board members who are on the front-lines of the debate and must deal with the fallout.
In explaining the Legislature’s proposal, Sen. Ashe said the Legislature’s “big concern, and the reason we stand firm on our sound financing model of letting the system pay for itself and not using one-time money, is that when these savings don’t materialize that the governor’s plan would have, it means that, one, we’ll have the pressure for tax rate increases (next year), and, two, it will accelerate more proposals to do more dramatic cuts in our public education system. It starts creating a cycle of perceived fiscal crisis in our schools.”
Ashe went on to say that had school boards not been holding down the budgets, such action might be prudent, but on the contrary the average school budget increase statewide was 1.5 percent, a percentage point below what the governor has asked for earlier in the session. Furthermore, he said, what the governor’s proposals would do is “immediately interject Montpelier into the work the school boards have been doing.”
This top-down approach to school governance, Ashe later said, not only contradicts the Vermont notion of self-governance at the local level, but also holds school districts (and taxpayers) hostage to an administration’s plan that is projecting millions of dollars in savings that nonpartisan legislative analysis have said will likely not materialize.
In casting doubt on the governor’s projected savings, Sen. Ashe noted that the proposed changes in how the state considers special education costs would not occur for “five, six and seven years out,” according to nonpartisan budget analysis, and definitely not in the first three years. Nonetheless, the governor’s budget projects a savings of $86 million in the first five years.
Scott’s proposal also includes $62 million in savings by reducing health insurance costs for teachers, and another $35 million that would be reaped by penalties on school districts (or taxpayers in those districts) that spend above the average statewide per pupil amount. Ashe explained that the current penalty is triggered when school districts spend 121 percent of the state average but, under Scott’s plan, would “very quickly” lower that threshold so that towns own the penalty when they spend 111 percent of the statewide average.
The governor’s proposal expects to raise $35 million more from school districts that exceed the per pupil spending average, Ashe said. (This often hurts smaller, rural schools that don’t have the student population to help disperse spending to a greater number of students, while higher-spending schools benefit from their higher student-teacher ratios. The governor does not count this as increased taxes, but rather as being raised by a penalty on those districts.)
Ashe also objected to a part of the governor’s plan that has not been widely reported: The penalties and budget restrictions apply only to public schools, but not to private high schools, which nonetheless are in many cases largely funded by tuitioned students into those schools. It’s a growing part of the budget, Ashe said, and it’s created some “tense” discussions among regions of the state.
“Where we’re at now,” Ashe said as he concluded his initial presentation, is that “we passed a budget which tried to remove the few things we’re fighting about with the governor, which is this one-time money issue. We said, ‘Look, we’ll move in your direction and keep the residential tax rate flat from last year, and then reserve the question of what to do with the remaining taxes on non-residential (properties) for a second thing, but let’s not hold up the entire state budget for what is effectively a $35 million dispute between the governor and Legislature.’
“And we hope, very fervently, that the governor signs this one, because the idea of a government shutdown would be hugely embarrassing and have financial consequences … We’re not sure what will happen, but if this gets vetoed we have real trouble because it means that we will be normalizing a process of holding up an entire state budget in order to force through some of these aggressive educational policies that I don’t think are very popular with the public.”
In the following give-and-take with the school board over the next 10 minutes, board members asked what they could do to help resolve the budget differences. Ashe responded that he hoped school boards would be open about telling the Legislature and governor about their concerns with educational funding and how it impacts their ability to run local school districts, and also to “let us (the state) know what to stay out of so we don’t mess it up.”

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