Op/Ed

Editorial: No easy fix for costly school budgets, but here’s a start

ANGELO LYNN

As about a third of the state’s school districts, including three of the four school districts serving Addison County, were defeated in Town Meeting votes this Tuesday, voters naturally turn to two questions: Short-term, what are the next steps to propose and vote on another budget and, long-term, how the heck do we fix the problem?

The first question is straightforward: School boards have until July 1 to rework budgets and pass them. If they’re unable to secure approval for a revised budget, districts can borrow up to 87% of their last passed budget to pay for operations. The latter scenario, when districts can’t pass a budget before July 1, rarely happens as boards manage to cut budgets enough to meet the majority’s approval. Next steps for school boards are to review existing budgets and find places to trim enough to satisfy the school board, teachers and administrators, students and taxpayers.

The second question has bedeviled the state for decades, initially prompting a school funding revolution in 1997 when Act 60 was passed. Called the Equal Education and Opportunity Act, Act 60 followed a state Supreme Court ruling that Vermont’s method of paying for education was inequitable and unconstitutional. That legislation has since been modified several times, with legislative layer after layer added, including the most recent attempts this session with Act 127 and H. 850. Without a doubt it is a struggle to find ways to pay for Vermont’s school system that are equitable and affordable.

In reaction to the largest number of school budget defeats in the past decade or more, Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, who chairs the House Education Committee, was blunt in his assessment.

“Given the increased cost statewide for education and the resulting tax increases, the reaction of voters is not surprising,” Conlon said, adding: “There is no magic solution here. Student needs are significant, the federal government continues to fail in providing health care coverage to all citizens, and the student and teacher demographics aren’t getting any better. Coming out of this won’t be easy because there is no pot of money in the wings. It’s going to mean tough choices and hard feelings to put our educational system on a sustainable path.”

At the heart of those “tough choices and hard feelings,” it’s important to understand some of the main drivers of school costs. Here are five: 

• Labor increases in Vermont’s tight labor market drive up staff, teacher and administrative costs each year, to which health care costs of 16% this year contributed a significant hit.

• Building and maintenance costs have seen higher than inflationary increases for the past several years, which is particularly true in Vermont because of a labor shortage in the construction industry. 

• The continued decline of students in Vermont has helped make the state’s pupil-teacher ratio the lowest (that is, most expensive) in the nation at 12-1. California is the highest in the nation at 21.36-1, while a pupil-teacher ratio of 17-1 or 18-1 is considered by several sources to be about right. Vermont’s small population spread over a forested, mountainous mostly rural landscape doesn’t help, but more to the point is Vermont’s culture of independent, small towns that value the benefits of tight-knit communities. In short, for good reasons we’re reluctant to consolidate our small schools, but that reluctance is costly.

• The lack of affordable housing in Vermont continues to drive families out of state and prevents newcomers from moving here to establish families and repopulate our schools.

• Finally, student mental health issues and need have skyrocketed over the past decade. Part of this is pandemic-related, but many other broader factors — including more incendiary rhetoric in our national politics, rise in school shootings, a looming climate catastrophe, and war and its impact around the globe all add to a teen’s angst of the world around them. Add that to the typical social pressure teens have to navigate, and a social media network that can easily overwhelm a teen’s ability to cope, and we have what many say is a mental health crisis in our schools.

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As taxpayers reflect on those costs, and perhaps read a bit between the lines (understanding some students are homeless, some don’t have adequate meals each day, or may be dealing with parents with drug addiction), a different understanding of what support schools are providing today’s students becomes clearer. And from a cost standpoint, the more one studies the budget the more you realize school boards don’t have a lot of leeway. Boards have some control over labor costs: that is, they can reduce the number of programs offered and the number of teachers and aides they employ as well as professionals working with behavioral issues, and administrative staff. Cuts can be made to a point, but school accreditation standards and the inevitable pushback from students and parents is the countercheck.

Take a step back, and you realize thousands of hard-working school board members, administrators, legislators, parents, students and educational professionals have worked hard over the years to find viable solutions, and yet, we are where we are.

As Rep. Conlon said, “coming out of this won’t be easy.”

But if there is one take away from the exercise of finding a path forward, it may be this: The more supportive and reassuring a community is to its students, the less angst students will feel. And the less angst there is, the fewer behavior problems students may have; and the fewer problems, the better their performance. Logic follows that the more students can do on their own in a supportive community, the less need there is for the additional levels of school support we’ve been funding for years. Getting there won’t solve everything, but it’s a start.

Angelo Lynn 

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