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I live in Warren and each year our local school board does a great job of balancing the cost of operating our elementary school while attempting to keep per pupil spending to a minimum, resulting in budget increases which are usually the lowest in the district. Additionally, I have sat in on Harwood School Board meetings and have seen the same kind of scrutiny and sensitivity when it comes to spending our taxpayer dollars. If anything, I think the Harwood school board tries too hard to limit spending at the detriment of the quality of education provided to our children.
However, the purpose of this article was not to give accolades to our local school boards but to reiterate the frustration I feel with regard to our ever-increasing property taxes and the declining degree of control we have over how that money is spent. While I can go on and on, I would like to point out two items for which I am incredibly frustrated. The first involves our supervisory union and the lack of input we as taxpayers have with regard to their budget. The budget for the upcoming school year for the supervisory union includes annual raises of 4.5 to 5.0 percent for the administrative staff. The superintendent has a multi-year contract which included salary raises. However, the other members of the staff are not bound by multi-year contracts and their raises are determined annually. I cannot believe anyone in the district can remember when they received an annual raise of 4.5 to 5.0 percent. This statement has nothing to do with the quality of work the supervisory union provides, it’s a matter of fairness, and I believe their raises should be in line with that received by the people who pay their wages.
An argument has been made that these raises were to bring the staff’s salaries up to the same level as similar positions in other districts. I reviewed information on the Department of Education’s website which provides a breakdown of everyone’s salary in the various supervisory unions throughout the state. The salaries paid to the employees of our supervisory union fall within the median of the ranges I reviewed. Consequently, it appears they are already within the same pay scale as their peers.
The raises for the supervisory union staff are determined by the executive committee of the supervisory union board. The wages are then incorporated into the supervisory union budget and presented and approved by the full supervisory union board. The supervisory union budget is then prorated for each of the schools included in the district and included as an expense item in each school’s budget. Therefore, the only opportunity for the public to have any say in the supervisory union budget is to vote against their local school budget. Consequently, although our local school boards may have done a great job watching costs, we can only speak out against any issue we have with the supervisory union budget by penalizing our local schools and voting down their budgets. This seems incredibly unfair to me.
My second issue has to do with the state’s education funding formula being fundamentally flawed. I recently read the original findings by the Supreme Court of Vermont (SCOV) in the Brigham case which resulted in Act 60. Throughout the findings, the SCOV stated Vermont’s education funding “deprives children of an equal educational opportunity in violation of the Vermont Constitution” and the remedy lay with the Legislature.
The court also went on to state: “We recognize that equal dollar resources do not necessarily translate equally in effect, there is no reasonable doubt that substantial funding differences significantly affect opportunities to learn . . . money is clearly not the only variable affecting educational opportunity, but it is one that government can effectively equalize.”
What this tells me is that the SCOV acknowledged that equal spending per student does not necessarily provide equal opportunity.
I am not an economist, but simple common sense tells us that it does not cost twice as much to educate two students as it does one. There are economies of scale which school districts with larger numbers of students can realize that the more rural districts cannot. Consequently, the more rural districts should receive more dollars per student then the more urban districts. Unless the Legislature wants all of Vermont to lose its rural characteristics and make it a more urban state, they must acknowledge the simple fact that it costs more to educate students in the less densely populated areas. I agree there are places even the rural areas can cut back – such as one supervisory union per county – but the current educational funding formula is penalizing students not located in densely populated areas and reducing their educational opportunities; that sounds unconstitutional to me. For example, last year the Burlington schools were discussing purchasing laptops for each student, while Harwood was struggling to provide potable drinking water. Where is the equality in that?
When Act 60 went into effect, some of these larger school districts received a huge influx of cash over and above what they previously used to operate resulting in school expenditures rural districts could only dream of. If the Legislature has the courage to fix the formula, it will probably result in these districts having to shrink their massive budgets which will be painful for them and consequently painful for their representatives in Montpelier.
Will it take another lawsuit to finally get our Legislators to move and fix the education funding formula? I hope not. I hope they have the courage and fortitude to acknowledge that Act 60 needs to be fixed.