Scott pitches plan to revote school budgets

The Scott administration is proposing that school districts be required to revote their budgets for the upcoming year in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and plummeting state revenues.
Department of Finance and Management Commissioner Adam Greshin outlined a plan to lawmakers Thursday that would involve all school districts — not just the 19 that still don’t have fiscal year 2021 budgets — voting again on their spending plans.
The plan sparked aggravation among some lawmakers, who questioned the logistics and said it would create “chaos.” Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, called the proposal “the first genuinely dumb idea that the administration has put forward during the COVID emergency.”
Under the Scott administration’s proposal, the new vote, which would take place in late summer or early fall, would establish a full fiscal year 2021 budget for districts. Districts would adopt a first quarter budget similar to their 2020 first quarter budget to cover the early summer months. The idea follows a model similar to the plan the Legislature has to adopt a general fund budget as revenues fall.
The state’s education fund is expected to see a shortfall of more than $160 million in the upcoming fiscal year.
The Addison Northwest School District board on Monday discussed five scenarios for the future of the Vergennes-area district, which, in an atmosphere of increasing financial pressure on public schools, is already wondering about budgets in future years.
Greshin presented the idea to the House Ways and Means Committee Thursday. He said the plan would allow districts to reassess their financial health as the state gets a better sense of the fiscal impacts of the coronavirus crisis.
It would also allow voters to better understand the “consequences” of their budget votes in the context of coronavirus-related budget shortfalls, Greshin said.
“We could ask districts to revote their budgets later in the summer,” Greshin said. “As the state is going to do with the general fund once the dust settles and we have a handle on the revenue picture and, frankly, the allowed uses of the Coronavirus Relief Fund.”
Another option on the table, Greshin said, is that he as commissioner of finance could set education payments for districts without voter input, which would require the Legislature to grant the administration that authority. Greshin said that the proposal for districts to revote on budgets would allow Vermonters to remain democratically engaged with their districts spending.
“I’m not suggesting anything I’ve said is easy or ideal,” Greshin said. “These are extraordinary times and they call for extraordinary measures.”
Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, said the idea Greshin presented would cause “chaos.” Webb, who chairs the House Education Committee but was sitting in on the Ways and Means conversation, has taken testimony in her committee about the scramble school districts without budgets are currently facing to hold these remaining budget votes safely.
“The concept of sending voters back to revote budgets sounds like, instead of stabilizing, contributes to even more chaos,” Webb told Greshin during the committee meeting. “Looking at the 19 districts without budgets right now, the amount of chaos in those districts is palpable.”
Baruth, who chairs Senate Education, said that the budgets that were voted in March were “hard-fought in many communities” and “as skinny as the boards could make them.”
“And now with voting fraught as it is, to be suggesting that everybody go back, even though they’ve successfully settled the issue of their budget, that they go back and revote I just think is a dumb idea,” he said.
He called it a bad idea for both public health and democratic reasons, and doesn’t want to see school districts have to rethink their budgets unless they want to do so of their own volition — without a mandate from Montpelier.
“Just logistically it’s bad. I don’t think that’s the answer to our hole in the ed fund.”
Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, also questioned how this plan would work for school districts that have already settled collective bargaining agreements with teachers and staff. Secretary of Education Dan French, who also attended the committee discussion, admitted the contract negotiations would add “complexity” to the administration’s proposal.
“I don’t think districts would be able to navigate the issue easily without getting all stakeholders at the table to come up with a solution,” French said.
Most labor contracts require school districts to notify their employees by April 15 if they plan to enact layoffs. That could make finding places to cut difficult — even if school boards are willing to put new spending plans before their voters so late in the process.
“The logistics don’t make sense to me. Things are definitely in place for next year,” said VT-NEA president Don Tinney.
Education officials have also argued that students are expected to return to schools in the fall requiring more academic and mental health support.
“Our students are going to need more resources than ever before,” Tinney said.
Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, called the administration’s proposal “dramatic” and said that it would certainly get the attention of lawmakers.
But he said the substance of the idea, particularly given that key contractual deadlines elapsed weeks ago, “on its face seems to have legal, logistical, and practical problems.”
Francis emphasized he thought it was reasonable to look at spending as the state contemplates ways to solve its financial crisis.
“But it’s got to be done in a way that could actually be made to work,” he said.
He also noted that the administration’s proposal comes at the same time that schools have already had to essentially reimagine, on a dime, the delivery of education while also helping to keep kids fed in a time of spiking hunger.
Educators “are not looking for sympathy,” he said. “We’re looking for a sort of well-reasoned approach.”
VTDigger’s Xander Landen and Lola Duffort contributed to this story.

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