Education Op/Ed

Opinion: School boards have done their jobs, now pass school budgets

By Sen. Ruth Hardy of Middlebury and Rep. Peter Conlon of Cornwall

In the coming days and weeks, three school districts serving students from Addison County and beyond will revote budgets for the next school year. Since Town Meeting Day, when the budgets for Mount Abe, Slate Valley and Otter Valley union school districts were first defeated, the district school boards have made difficult, responsible decisions to cut staff, programs and investments, while keeping core teaching and learning alive and robust.

REP. PETER CONLON

Meanwhile, those of us in the Legislature, tasked with funding locally approved school budgets, have heard the pleas of taxpayers and committed significant state dollars to reducing the local property tax impact of education spending increases statewide, driven by factors such as overall inflation, a 16 % hike in health insurance costs, and a dramatic increase in student mental health and remedial education needs as federal dollars to support those students goes away.

These districts can’t responsibly cut more. It is time to approve their budgets so school leaders can plan for the next school year and provide the vital programs and services that so many students need.

These three districts, like all the districts with unapproved budgets in Vermont, don’t fit the picture the Governor has painted in the last six months. Their budget increases are reasonable given forces beyond their control, their per pupil spending is well below their neighboring school districts, and their staff-to-student ratios are where they should be. The Governor continues to irresponsibly stress that school spending is out of control and school boards need to respond. These three districts already have. Over the past 10 years, they have closed underenrolled schools, consolidated grades and made important investments in their buildings when resources allowed.

For each of these districts, the newly proposed budgets have been significantly narrowed and would actually result in lower homestead tax rates than this year. Increased property tax rates come only after the common level of appraisal (CLA) is applied, which essentially adjusts appraised property values to reflect fair market values, with the goal of ensuring that all towns pay their fair share into the state Education Fund. When properties are under-valued, the tax rate increases. As towns complete reappraisals, the CLA impact will decrease.

The newly proposed Slate Valley School District budget proposes to spend only $11,295 per pupil, a decrease from this year and significantly less than the statewide average. The equalized tax rate is actually 2.61% less than this year. After the CLA is applied, tax rates increase, but at a lower level than the statewide average. Similarly, the newly proposed Mount Abe budget lowers the homestead tax rate by 4.7%, with tax rate increases of 4% to 7% after the CLA adjustment, which is a similar range to previous year’s approved budgets. The most recent budget proposed for Otter Valley showed per pupil spending $1,000 less than the state average and an equalized property tax rate increase of 3.7%.

SEN. RUTH HARDY

These three districts have been among the most careful districts in the state when it comes to spending their taxpayer dollars and responding to the demands of their voters. It is time to approve their budgets.

Meanwhile, the Legislature has taken concrete steps to address the high cost of education in Vermont. In addition to committing $70 million to lower local tax rates, we passed bills allowing districts in regions around the state to more easily join forces and lower the cost of services such as busing, food service, and expensive special education programs. The Legislature has also laid the groundwork for a return of state aid for school construction projects, which hasn’t existed since 2008. It has also proposed — pending the bill being signed by Gov. Scott — a Commission on the Future of Public Education, which will study short-term cost-containment strategies, as well as dig into the deeper causes of high costs, with a goal of providing the Legislature with proposals for difficult future changes to our public education system statewide.

For now, we need to let our school districts get ready for summer programs, the return of students in the fall, and the activities that bring school and broader communities together for sports, plays, concerts and exhibitions. It is time to support our students and schools and vote yes on the upcoming budgets for Mount Abe, Otter Valley and Slate Valley. Thank you.

Peter Conlon is the chair of the House Education Committee. Ruth Hardy is chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee. Both have served many years as school board chairs.

 

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