Editorial: Changing rural demographics disrupt school funding fairness

As a clarification to an editorial written this past Monday, the expectation for small schools to be able to have control over whether they will be able to remain open is that current fundamentals would have to change. At the district level, some of the rules of district unification (as in, how schools could be closed) would need to be revised. At the state level, perhaps the very essence of the Supreme Court’s Brigham decision would need to be explored, and school finance laws amended within that framework.
At the district level, the petitions submitted to the Addison Northwest School District board and the Addison Central School District board attempted to change the charter by putting those measures before a district-wide vote. Both were rejected because attorneys hired by the school boards told their clients that, from a legal perspective, they didn’t have to honor the petitions if they didn’t want to.
At the state level, the Brigham decision forced the Legislature to develop a tax structure in which educational funding was equalized statewide; that is, richer towns or schools didn’t have an advantage over poorer towns or schools. Therefore, our suggestion in Monday’s editorial that a small town might be able to subsidize its pupils (as a way to keep the schools open to appease district taxpayers) would likely violate the Brigham decision and the current school finance laws, Acts 60 and 68. To that end, amendments to those laws (or wholesale changes) would need to be made to allow towns the discretion to tax themselves at a higher level. (Of course, we’re not sure if any town would be willing to do so, but theoretically, the question is should towns have such latitude in these changing times, or is there some other mechanism the state could adopt to aid rural schools?)
Indeed, the primary question facing Vermonters on this issue is whether the Vermont legislature will come to the aid of rural Vermont, or whether it will allow small, rural towns to wither; death, such as it is, by a thousand tiny cuts. It’s been happening for decades; the question is how far will it go, how small is too small?
Nor are there proven solutions, nor does Vermont have the funds to spend its way out of this problem. We could perhaps take statewide measures to slow the trend; district charters could be changed to give small schools new life; small towns could develop local incentives to attract more young families therefore increasing the number of students and state aid to those schools at, roughly, $18,000 per pupil. But without a concerted statewide effort, small towns are in for a rough ride if current trends hold over the next several years.
As for justifications to amend Acts 60 and 68, here’s a little context: Brigham was decided in 1996 and Acts 60 and 68 were passed shortly after. The acts equalized the funding mechanism across the state, but since then the state has seen a drastic demographic shift from rural Vermont to larger more-urban communities.
Because the schools receive an equalized amount per student, a school with declining enrollment today fares worse than one with increases in enrollment because of the economics of scale. That trend over the past 20 years has accelerated, leading to greater pressures on Vermont’s smaller, rural towns and their schools. (Note: Decline was not the expectation in the 1990s when Brigham was decided and Acts 60-68 were passed. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vermont had a slight population surge and a mini-economic boom. Schools like Middlebury’s Mary Hogan expanded, the Union Middle School was built and the Ripton Elementary School was built in 1988 to handle the new growth — a vague memory today, but it wasn’t that long ago. Ripton used to have almost 80 students K-6, but is not about 56, or a little over a 11-1 student-teacher ratio.)
When suggesting that towns be given the latitude to save “their” schools, we are reminded by the ACSD board that we also breach current realities that rightly suggest there are no such things as “town” schools anymore. All schools belong to the “district.” Similarly, the ACSD board notes, there are no “local school boards” to lead such an initiative. Those efforts now fall to the town selectboards (as was seen in Addison and Ferrisburgh when those town bodies strongly criticized and rejected the district board’s recommendation to close schools in both towns) and to concerned citizens.
Both are also comments that prove the point that current rules of the district charter have undercut local input more than what many district residents anticipated when the charter was formed three years ago. At no point did residents of the district vote to give up their voices. Rather, they voted to join a unified district because of promised economic efficiencies in governance (that is, administrative tasks and expenses would be diminished with modest savings), while board representation promised safeguards to school closures and to provide a platform to hear, as well as act on, citizen concerns from all towns.
In the short-term, however, all this consternation is idle banter compared to the task of proposing and passing school budgets for the upcoming fiscal year. We get that. Budgets are tight. State aid is diminishing at most Addison County schools, thus putting a greater burden on taxpayers. School board members have to be able to propose budgets that voters will approve. That’s not easy and measures to provide even more aide to the district’s smallest schools would only aggravate that budget process.
That’s the spot between a rock and a hard place. But is the answer to close schools, and deliver an almost certain death-knell to those communities? Or is there another way, and is there time enough to get there? That’s a statewide political question that challenges the current status quo.
Angelo Lynn

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