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(This letter was sent to Governor Peter Shumlin)
By Ben Smith
As a school board member for the past five years in the town of Duxbury and a supporter of yours, I was shocked by the tone of your budget speech yesterday. Month after month, year after year, local school boards sit down and comb through budgets, trying to eke out something reasonable in the face of an ever more complicated tangle of regulation, mandates and contractual labor obligations. In our own district, we have already consolidated our elementary schools, streamlined purchasing and instituted hiring guidelines to help keep staff costs down. We are starting an early retirement incentive program this year. We have saved on legal costs through a different style of contract negotiations. We are sharing services with other schools in our supervisory union to efficiently deploy the technology required for the new education quality standards, personalized learning plans, and the Common Core – not a cheap proposition. We held costs virtually flat through the recession years of 2009-2012. Our teacher-student ratios are exactly within the limits set by state policy.
And yet, this year, we could level-fund our budget (which would entail cutting approximately seven teachers or a much larger number of support staff) and – because of the state formulas – our tax rates would still go up 6 percent. If – instead of level-funding – we chose simply to maintain our current level of service, taxes would have to go up over 10 percent. Many schools throughout the state are in a similar position.
Waterbury-Duxbury is an average spending district with stable enrollment. To initiate the kind of cuts you are urging would be devastating to the quality of our schools. Encouraging voters to overturn the diligent and considered work of their own elected school board members – on information that will necessarily be less considered and less informed – is a tactic that I find absolutely astonishing and, frankly, disrespectful.
Maybe your message will get through and local voters will overturn our budget. If that is the case, you will have succeeded in decreasing the quality of education in our community. And where does the cutting end? How many teachers do we let go? What percentage tax increase is appropriate? What about next year? Same thing?
If you care about education quality in this state, you will reconsider the approach you have taken and engage in a partnership with the hardworking volunteers on local boards to puzzle through a solution to this difficult problem. After years looking squarely at this issue, I have come to believe that quality education in a rural state is, quite simply, an expensive proposition (the economist William Baumol is articulate on why this might be so). The conversation we should be having is not how to bring down costs arbitrarily – which will bring down quality, necessarily – but how to properly and fairly fund this crucial obligation we bear to the future and how to extract the most value for the large amount of money we will continue to spend. With the property tax increases we are facing and the anger they are likely to engender, we are in an emergency situation for school quality in Vermont. It's a situation that requires state-level action this year. We need your help, governor, and the message you delivered yesterday was exactly the opposite. I urge you with the greatest respect to consider a change in your approach to this complex and crucial issue.
Ben Smith, MD, lives in Duxbury and serves on the Harwood Union School Board.