The Valley Reporter interviewed the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates last month in Waitsfield and Middlesex. Democratic candidate Sue Minter and Republican candidate Phil Scott sat down to answer a series of questions that are being printed in recent and future issues of The Valley Reporter.
VR: Do you support Act 46 and school board consolidation? Do you see real cost savings coming from this? What will happen after the five years of tax breaks to early merger?
Phil Scott (PS): Act 46 is certainly not perfect and Act 46 wasn’t something that I might have crafted, but after listening to the cries from Vermonters for relief from property taxes over the last decade, I was encouraged that they took some action. The Legislature has done nothing up to that point, but it was hurried and it was done last minute, but at the same time it started the conversation, the critical conversation about how do we pay for our education system and again our problem is, we are educating 20,000 less kids than we were 20 years ago. We are down to 86,000 kids and were spending $1.6 billion to do so. It is one of the highest rates in the country and we’re not really getting the returns that we should for spending that money and I’ve said this to a few people. If you think about it and you went to a group of well-educated folks, enterprising folks, and you said to them, I have $1.6 billion and I need to educate 86,000 kids, I would dare say that we wouldn’t be doing it the same way we’re doing it today. We’d be doing it very differently.
Sue Minter (SM): I’m a supporter of the goals of Act 46. I favor, in places where possible, better opportunities and equity for kids and, yes, cost savings and efficiencies. I support the unification of governance. In our area it was a very difficult conversation, particularly for some of The Valley communities. I believe that unified governance for our district will help us move from seven different school boards and budgets for 1,800 students. Our challenge is declining enrollment and how can a board think collectively across a whole spectrum, because you can’t do that when you're in silos. I know there is great concern among some that they won’t be as well represented. I believe our local schools should and will continue to have a very strong voice. Unification of governance has great potential. But, do I think it’s going to solve our property tax problem? No, it is not a solution to that. It is a goal of helping us think differently in a time of tremendous change with very significant and ongoing declining enrollment. When we think as a group about those situations both short and long term, we’re going to do better thinking as a whole versus divided boards.
VR: Do you have a fix for Act 60/68 and Vermont’s extremely high per pupil spending?
SM: I think we want to look at how we are raising the property tax. That is really about how we are raising taxes and utilizing one statewide system of tax expenditures. So looking again at, I guess you’d call it the formula; the complicated system by which we raise revenues and spend them can and should be a part of it. That is different from the structural changes of Act 46 that I think will be evolving over the next few years. Frankly, in other parts of our state, very, very rural parts of the state, it has become a strident conversation and I want, as governor, to make sure our state board of education remains flexible about what a district must look like. We cannot have a cookie cutter one size fits all. I think the most important thing I will be doing as governor is appointing the next chair and three other board of education commissioners because it is really the board of education that is going to be making these decisions as communities come forward with their proposed district unification plans.
PS: I think there needs to be more choice. I think choices are essential and that competition is good. We need to focus on costs. There’s been a push over the last few years about moving to a different funding system; let’s go to something else rather than property tax. Our income- sensitized system is insulating us from reality. That’s part of our problem too; some don’t see how much it really costs. When you look at our entire system, it’s really about labor. Eighty percent of what we spend is labor and that’s not something we can continue to do. We have to have the courage to think outside the box and rethink how we deliver quality 21st-century education in a much different way. Let’s not forget about the student. How do we deliver that high-quality education? It’s difficult because we have this population demographic problem that other states don’t have. But you need either more students to educate, more people paying into the system or you have to consolidate. You have to do things in a different, more meaningful way. We have to be realistic that we can’t afford to continue down this path. We have this affordability problem.
VR: How would you make state college tuition more affordable for Vermont families?
PS: I grew up in Barre, went through industrial arts and tech ed, and I think that we’ve lost some of those basic life skills, and I think what’s happened is that there are many of our children that are going through school that are never experiencing some of the possibilities and that creativity that comes out as a result of the industrial arts programs and so forth. I think we need to reinstitute some of those because there’s going to be a huge opportunity for many in Vermont in terms of the technical trades, the electricians, the heating and ventilating, the mechanical. Even in the solar industry and so forth. But we need to tap into that creativity so it leads to, when you graduate from high school, some don’t know what they want to do, making tuition free isn’t necessarily going to solve the problem because many just don’t know what they want to do.
They don’t know what the possibilities are, so I want to make sure that we don’t forget about tech ed. And that it’s not all about the four-year college program. There’s actually an opportunity for many to seek a career in the trades and that doesn’t take a four-year program; that is going to take a two-year program in some respects. So I want to make sure that there’s training beyond high school to utilize all sectors. So it’s essential that we do cut down the costs associated with that and the barriers associated with that as well.
SM: It is one of the most important proposals that I look forward to implementing which is what I call my Vermont plan – two years free at community college or Vermont Technical College. And I truly believe that the lever of change and opportunity for our future is in education. We know that two-third of the jobs of the 21st century require some kind of education training after high school. In Vermont four of 10 students are ending their education after high school. That’s the opportunity gap that I want to meet. I’m setting a goal of getting, by 2025, 75 percent of graduates to go beyond high school. This is going to be an all-in effort.
Students are deciding in sixth grade whether they believe they are able to continue education beyond high school. We want to match students to volunteer mentors to be their champions and to help them believe that they have that opportunity and that future. I want to break down the barriers of cost, particularly for those who need it most, those who will go to community college and get an associate degree so they can go on into a career with a livable wage jobs and economic security. I’m traveling all around state and one thing I hear every time is that businesses can’t find qualified workers. We’ve got four of 10 kids stopping education after high school. This is what we have to do to break the generational cycle of poverty and I’m committed to that.