By Scott Mackey
Last year, the Legislature passed and the governor signed legislation – Act 46 – that places increased pressure on school boards to change Vermont’s “business as usual” approach to K-12 education. It requires school boards from many small, local school districts to consolidate into larger units or else face large increases in property taxes in future years. The law also requires school districts with high per-pupil expenditures to dramatically restrain spending over the next two years. Failure to do so will also result in large increases in property taxes.
Predictably, now that school boards and legislators realize that this law could actually force tough decisions, there is a growing call for legislation to “fix” Act 46. I believe this would be a serious mistake, sending a message to school boards that Vermont elected officials lack the political will to do anything about the growing property tax burden on citizens and businesses. I hope the “silent majority” of Vermonters who have experienced rising property taxes for years will speak up and ask their school board members and legislators to let Act 46 work.
On the issue of school district consolidation, let’s use the example of the Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU). In the six towns in the WWSU – Waterbury, Duxbury, Waitsfield, Warren, Moretown and Fayston – we have six school districts with six school boards. Four boards run their own elementary schools, one operates a joint K-8 district and the other governs Harwood Union High School.
There is no compelling reason why all of the schools within the WWSU cannot be governed by a single board. This would allow for a single contract that would facilitate sharing of staff – both teaching staff and administration – that would allow the larger district to operate more efficiently with fewer staff. There would also be benefits for students. There are kids in north Moretown who live less than 2 miles from Thatcher Brook Elementary School who are bused 8 miles to Moretown. There are kids who ride the bus past Fayston or Waitsfield elementary school to get to their respective schools. A single district would allow kids to go to the closest school or the one that best suits their needs. It could allow schools to specialize in areas that might make sense for kids.
Act 46 provides a mechanism for this consolidation and, in fact, provides financial incentives to taxpayers to consolidate by reducing property taxes for four years after consolidation. This is a true no-brainer, yet there is opposition in some communities who fear that their elementary schools may be closed.
Back in the 1960s, when the state created union high school districts, communities feared the loss of “local control” because their one-room schoolhouses would close and neighboring towns with larger populations would have more say on local boards. Yet as a state, Vermont recognized that single K-12 schools were not getting the job done. We need to recognize that, given the financial constraints on taxpayers and demographic changes, the current governance model is not getting the job done.
And, speaking of demographics, I would encourage everyone with an interest in this issue to visit the website of the Vermont Joint Fiscal Office and look at the presentation that economist Tom Kavet gave to the Legislature on December 1. His data shows that Vermont has the second lowest birthrate in the nation – 51 babies born per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44. For the last six years, there have only been about 6,000 babies born in Vermont each year and, according to Mr. Kavet, this trend is not going to change. In the 1980s, there were about 8,000 births per year. Despite this, we are trying to maintain the same schools that were in place 30 years ago. No wonder property taxes are going through the roof.
This leads to the second and related point about the penalty provisions in the law for high-spending schools. In the next two months, school boards will be finalizing their budgets. This is going to be a very difficult process and citizens are likely to hear about how spending pressures are outside of school boards’ control.
Respectfully, as someone who spent nine years on the Harwood board, I’m not buying it. Yes, salary increases are protected by contract and things like utilities and other operating expenses are fixed. However, the largest share of school budgets is personnel, and boards directly control staffing levels in their respective schools. If school enrollments are declining precipitously, shouldn’t staffing levels be doing the same?
I chaired the Harwood board during the depths of the recession in 2008 and 2009. Our board approved back-to-back budgets that froze or reduced spending. It was not fun. I did not like having to sit across the table from staff members who were being laid off. However, it was also no picnic for state employees – many of them Waterbury property taxpayers – who were forced to take a 3 percent pay cut to help the state balance its books. It was possible to cut expenditures then and it is now.
The point here is that Act 46 is going to force boards to make very tough decisions – decisions that should have been made years ago but have been put off because Vermont’s school funding system allowed them to be put off. However, given the population demographics and the property tax burden, these are decisions that must be made now. Any attempt to “fix” Act 46 to allow these tough decisions to be put off would be a big mistake.
Scott Mackey lives in Waterbury.