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By Jim Parker
Act 60/68, the static funding system that resists change except for increased spending, was created by the Vermont Legislature to respond to the infamous Brigham decision by the State Supreme Court. The decision that read, “There must be equal education opportunity.”
Today Whitingham School where Amanda Brigham attended no longer exists but the legacy of this faithful decision continues to affect education spending in an upward direction while the student population in Vermont continues to decline.
Since 1997, student population has declined from 110,000 to 89,000 today and the number of teachers and aides has risen from 14,800 to nearly 20,0000. Most school districts and supervisory unions continue to be funded.
So we are moving toward tripling the cost of education in 20 years. You hear of teachers purchasing supplies for their kids because the budget ran out. With 80 percent of school funding going to teachers, aides and administrators, there is left only 20 percent to cut, if you don’t want to affect personnel. If you are in a school district, like Warren, which receives only 32 cents of every dollar it sends to the state, it is only possible to affect spending on 20 percent of the 32 cents. The other 68 cents is out there in the wonderful world of state education redistribution and, therefore, untouchable by our local budget decisions.
When there is a threat to a rising school budget, politics takes hold in a very effective way. A school district says we will cut the music program or sports or some other activity certain to cause great alarm among the masses, so the school budget passes, although in reality it wasn’t threatened.
We have a clever static funding system created by the Legislature which allows them to say, “We aren’t to blame for increased spending; it is the school districts who vote in these high budgets.” Give me a break, please. Only when funds are raised locally and spent locally on a dollar-for-dollar basis do you have true local control of spending. Spending is then relative to local costs of living and everyone feels the effects of their spending decision directly. A situation where we send 68 percent of the funds above our needs to the state for distribution, that we have no control over, is a recipe for ever-increasing spending. There is no downward pressure at all. It is disingenuous for the Legislature to blame local school districts when they created this self-generating spending machine.
Unfortunately, Act 60 was foisted on us when grand lists began to skyrocket and school districts couldn’t spend the money fast enough. Property tax rates were pretty much static. Now grand lists are declining, but to keep up the spending, property tax rates have to be raised. I was alarmed by this from the outset and even raised my concerns with the Senate finance committee but they scoffed at me, saying grand lists don’t go down. Surprise, senators.
The direction we are going, with declining enrollment and rising spending, will eventually produce one student costing $5 billion and 40,000 teachers teaching him. So you say I’m being ridiculous. OK, maybe I am. Then where does ridiculous begin? Is it now, with 20,000 teachers and aides teaching 89,000 students?
Well, I can guarantee that the same reasons we can’t cut spending today will still be on the list when we have the $5 billion student:
1. Schools and teachers are being asked to do too much social work.
2. We have more demand from parents with special needs children. Imagine the cost of the $5 billion student if the student has special needs.
3. We don’t have enough funds to buy the school supplies, our teachers have to purchase them. When the cars in the faculty parking lot outnumber the students in the school, maybe that is a clue.
4. We need all these school districts because we are such a rural state. Plus a principal for each, plus 14 supervisory unions and superintendents, etc.
5. We cannot fight the NEA and there are teachers’ contracts that must be honored.
6. Discretionary spending is a small part of the budget and it is hard to cut.
I love kids and I love teachers. If money is the answer to a quality education, then let’s spend it, but let’s get back to true local control of those funds.
The Legislature interpreted the Brigham decision to mean redistribution of wealth and it almost always results in redistribution of misery, with rising costs, lower quality and much frustration.
Jim Parker lives in Warren.