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By Jim Parker
On Thursday evening, February 20, there was a revealing forum on education funding. It was sparsely attended but hosted by very capable and knowledgeable people. Those who were in
attendance asked very intelligent and insightful questions.
Heidi Spears, chair of the Fayston School Board, presented a possible long-term approach to solving or changing the education spending formula.
She revealed something I intuitively knew but never heard expressed before – that some school districts spend a lot more than, let's say, Warren but pay property taxes as if they were spending much less.
For instance, Warren will spend approximately $15,000 per student in 2014, but we are taxed as if we were spending $45,000 per student. This I knew, but Heidi pointed out that Rochester has just the inverse situation. Rochester will spend $33,000 per student but will be taxed as if it were spending $14,000.
Now I suggested that we should use our vote at Town Meeting, our referendum, to reduce our school budget by, let's say, 5 percent. In Warren, that would be a reduction of $750 per student but would translate into $2,250 per student in property tax savings. Inversely, if Rochester was motivated by some miracle to reduce their school budget by 5 percent, that would be a reduction per student of $1,650 but would translate into only $688 per student in property tax savings, not much of a motivation for the big hit in spending. Well, I was summarily trounced for even
considering reducing school spending. Even though for a small amount of reduction we get a big tax savings. It seems that school budgets cannot take any reductions, but Vermont homeowners and businesses have an unlimited ability to take increases.
The purpose of the meeting was to shed light on this complicated funding/spending formula. It was suggested that the complication is the problem, nobody understands it. Well, there is some truth to that, but the real issue is that the Legislature, when creating Act 60/68, did not establish a hard budget for school spending, per Representative Adam Greshin. It was left open ended, thinking the school boards, you and I would control spending with our votes. We know that hasn't worked so far. Further the Legislature hedged their bets on rising school costs by holding a blank check in the form of the property tax rate. So much so that property taxes account for 68 percent of all funds for education, up about 12 percent from the inception of Act 60. The tax rate can be increased at will which brings us to our education property tax going up 10 percent this year alone.
There were some good suggestions on how to fight Montpelier:
Petition drives (I actually did this in 2004, to hold back some property taxes).
A possible constitutional challenge to the Brigham decision.
Return to the Foundation formula but fund it this time.
But the one thing that no one liked was cutting anything. Even Ms. Spears thinks having 60 supervisory unions is necessary. Consolidation of schools is a bad idea.
It was acknowledged that 80 percent of the budget is payroll and an obvious place to start cutting, but that would mean increasing class sizes and then there are all those services that parents are demanding that schools provide, including special ed, mental health and other social services that in my day weren't part of a school's responsibility. And then there are the underfunded mandates.
The governor has called for voting down your school budget if you don't like your taxes – fat chance. Even if we were to do this, voter apathy would soon take over and the budget would eventually be passed after a little fiddling by the school board.
I would be willing to make a motion at Town Meeting this year to reduce our school budget in Warren by 5 percent and require a paper ballot to vote on it. This will either succeed or fail.
If by some miracle enough property taxpayers and concerned citizens show up and it passed, it would prove that it is possible to reduce a school budget and send a real message via Mr. Greshin to Montpelier. If it should fail, it would mean the premise that the Legislature and the governor has espoused is false, and Act 60/68 is rigged for spending. Will it be a bitter pill? Yes. Will it hurt kids? No.
Property taxes are the highest contributor to education funding. The future looks bleak for home ownership, when single payer health care becomes reality. The percentage of property taxes funding education will go up, compounded by ever increasing spending and diminishing enrollment. Even those blessed with income sensitivity relief who don't get what the problem is will then.
So what should a besieged and frustrated property taxpayer, who wants the best public education for his grandchildren, do?
Jim Parker lives in Warren.