Unfortunately for those who find our property taxes a heavy burden, our current school district leadership continues to operate as if students and parents play no significant role in containing our property taxes. In truth, driving away current and would-be families is a very effective and immediate way to drive up our tax burden, even if we actually reduce spending. School budgets and redesigns that pay no mind to what our communities seek in their schools will cost us all dearly, as the formula that determines our tax rates makes plain.
In Vermont’s statewide education funding system, Act 60/68, our property tax rates are based upon education spending per equalized pupils, not total expenditures. Increased local spending drives up our property tax rates if, and only if, it translates to higher spending on a per pupil basis. If spending increases but enrollment also rises, tax rates can decline – a reality we used to enjoy and other districts still do. Conversely, even when we reduce education spending, if enrollment declines our property tax rates can go up, as many of our communities have experienced of late. To ignore how enrollment impacts tax rates is foolish. Even Waterbury residents, who at first appear unscathed by the superintendent’s school closure and busing schemes, would experience increased tax rates with any redesign that undermines neighboring communities and enrollment across our now unified district. Our fates are now tied.
It is important to note that while our superintendent has spun our declining enrollment as inevitable and is planning our future as if it will be continuous, other regional schools, such as Montpelier, Stowe, and CVU, are operating at capacity and have waiting lists in the context of statewide high school choice – waiting lists with Harwood students on them. Decline is not inevitable; it is a function of school district performance. Our administration has realized significantly declining academic performance and enrollment, as it refuses to constructively engage our community or respect the interests of many parents and students, who can and do vote with their feet. From 2013-2016 (more recent data has not been made available) we experienced student outflow of just under 10 percent of the total student body at Harwood middle and high school. This cohort outflow at Harwood has been very costly to our taxpayers, student diversity and district performance.
Notably, over the same period we had no cohort outflow at our elementary schools. We would have to be extremely naive, however, to think current machinations to close high-performing and beloved community-based schools and put children on absurdly long daily bus rides to and from Waterbury wouldn’t drive that trend line of departing families right into our elementary schools as well.
To reduce our property tax burden and fashion a constructive redesign plan we need to verify why students are choosing to leave Harwood and learn what we can offer to keep them local. We need to restore student surveys on engagement and climate that this administration discontinued in the context of major changes in curriculum. We need to bring critical data and feedback into the light, learn from them and formulate strategies that don’t wholly ignore them. Bringing issues into the light isn’t sabotage or undermining – attacking anyone who raises them and ignoring real problems is.
Of course, we still need to cut spending to contain taxes and right-size to our current population – not some future prospect. We don’t just have declining cohorts, we have smaller cohorts coming up through right now, and enrollment fluctuations can undermine efficiencies, particularly in small schools. That said, we have had comparable and even higher spending levels at our largest primary school, where class sizes are at the top of the state recommended range. Clearly to contain spending we need cuts that take into account more than class size and that introduce efficiencies across the district. We need cuts furthest from students, where growth in our expenditures is highest and, not at all coincidentally, the least transparent.
We can do a lot to reduce our expenditures, guided by state and national research which reveals how our local spending far exceeds that of other high-performing states in several key areas, including administrative overhead and inefficient second- and third-tier support services. Larger average class sizes are a way to reduce expenditures and that can be achieved by combining cohorts across neighboring schools as needed, without closing historic community schools, undermining community vitality and attractiveness to young families.
There are many options for reducing expenditures, none of which have been explored and all of which should have been before the superintendent and HUUSD Board chair called the board to vote to spend $28,600 to have an architectural firm scope their redesign fancies. That vote took place in February, before any community dialogue on redesign whatsoever. It did fail, but by a narrow margin, and was promptly added to the next board agenda clearly in hopes of a different outcome. The board only paused in its mad dash to assert its authority when the public showed up en masse at their next meeting and voiced outrage at the pace and direction of redesign, which was undeniably a 180-degree turn from what our communities were told to secure our votes for consolidation.
Such flagrant disregard for the interests of students, parents and communities is absurd in the context of the supposed goal of containing our property taxes. For certain, any plan that will effectively contain property taxes must focus first and foremost on attracting and retaining families that we spend over $36 million annually to serve.
Spear lives in Fayston