Guest editorial: Legislature’s nonsensical education reform plans should be dropped

The impending 17 percent increase in property taxes has our elected leaders on the political edge, thinking they are about to be tarred by the taxpayers’ brush and that doing something, anything, would be better than doing nothing.

They are wrong.

Last week the House’s tax-writing committee continued its feverish push to figure out different ways to structure how our schools could be funded, and different policy approaches that might alter the cost trajectory of particular programs. The House is trying to figure out how to make school funding easier to understand and to make the process more transparent. House members are even dipping their toes into the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA), seeing whether it can be adjusted so that local tax rates are moderated. This is all being considered on the fly, in the last moments of the Legislature.

Here is what Vermont’s Superintendents, Principals, School Boards, and School Business Officials think of the House effort: “The bill does nothing to address the cost shifts to local school districts of our failing mental health system. It does nothing to prevent the General Assembly from adding large-scale programmatic cost burdens — like universal school meals and the ill-conceived PCB program — onto the backs of property taxpayers. It does nothing to address the costs associated with operating a parallel education delivery system that relies on private schools and third-party providers of ancillary services when the public education system has existing space and capacity. The bill does nothing to support local school officials in contending with dramatic and crippling annual increases in the high cost of health insurance. It does nothing to assist, through well-reasoned policy approaches and the collaboration that we have been calling for, local school districts in optimizing school facilities, right-sizing school staff, and achieving strategic mergers. And, it does nothing to make the reasons behind the increasing costs of public education more transparent to the taxpayer.”

In other words, the legislation being proposed is a disaster in the making.

Then, on Friday, the Scott Administration, through Craig Bolio, the state’s tax commissioner, proposed spreading the 17 percent property tax increase out over multiple years, yet did not say how the “deferment” would be paid for. Mr. Bolio’s idea included the potential of allowing “forgiveness” of the payment if schools showed “improving existing high-priority performance metrics.”

This is the same government that deferred school construction needs in 2007, which left us with a $6.3 billion hole.

This is the same government that deferred action on pensions, which has cost us billions of dollars.

This is the same government that signed into law H.127, which caused untold problems with this year’s school funding efforts.

This is the same government that continues to add to our schools’ responsibilities with no effort to follow up with the money necessary to fund them.

Legislators found Mr. Bolio’s idea “intriguing.” Of course, they did. Legislators are desperate to find a way to reduce the expected 17 percent property tax increase and to take credit for it. So is the governor. But kicking the property tax can down the road does nothing except to make things worse in future years. And what happens if, in a year or so, another funding crisis comes? The deferred tax just gets piled on top?

Mr. Bolio’s proposal is fiscal nonsense and should be dropped.

The legislation being considered by the House should be dropped as well. It makes things worse and even less understandable than what we have. The reality is that our schools will need to work through this year’s mess, which will be tough but survivable.

What the Legislature should do is establish a commission that addresses our educational system’s core issues, like school governance, a statewide teachers’ contract, mental health funding, state initiatives, etc., issues that truly have an enormous impact on our school budgets.

These issues will take time and political courage. But they are the only way to deal with the need to create sustainable budgets as well as a system that offers a better way to educate our students. Vermonters would also appreciate an approach that is less about approval politics than an approach that actually gets something done.

Emerson Lynn

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