With an executive branch in Republican hands, and a Legislature overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats, ideological conflict is part and parcel of state government these days. And it became clear Tuesday afternoon where that partisan divide is widest.
Democratic leaders gave a generally warm reception to Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s budget address. But, as was the cast last year, Scott’s call for cost-containment in public schools is shaping up as the brightest flashpoint in Montpelier in 2018.
“The discussion on the education front is a different challenge all on its own because unlike the budget, there is no proposal on the table right now from the administration,” Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said at a press conference after the budget address.
Scott has called on lawmakers to do whatever’s necessary to avoid the projected increase in next year’s property tax rates. The Republican governor says achieving that goal will require significant reductions to education spending.
Ashe and his Democratic colleagues, however, say the governor has been unwilling to offer up a plan for action.
“I would direct all of you in the room to ask the governor for what he did not provide today, which were any specifics about cost-cutting ideas for education,” Chittenden County Sen. Phil Baruth, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said to reporters.
Last week, the Scott administration sent a memo to lawmakers with a list of cost-cutting concepts. He was emphatic that the list did not constitute a “proposal” on his part. Lawmakers don’t seem likely to adopt them anyway.
“Some of the ideas in the memos that came forward in the memo … are wrongheaded,” Baruth said.
One of the more notable items on that memo would cut $30 million from next year’s school budgets by enforcing a mandatory reduction in school staff across Vermont.
Scott on Tuesday broadened his call for reductions in school staff, saying the state should increase the staff to student ratio, from 4-to-1 to 5-to-1, over the next five years. Bristol Rep. David Sharpe, the Democratic chairman of the House Education Committee, says Scott hasn’t given lawmakers any indication of how that would work.
“What I would like from the administration, rather than some vague ideas, is some concrete notions in language that the committee can deal with,” Sharpe said.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson says there’s a more fundamental problem with Scott’s approach to cost-containment in public schools.
Johnson says Vermont has a proud history of letting local voters make financial decisions about what’s best for their local schools. Johnson says staffing mandates, or caps on local school budgets, as Scott has also suggested, are antithetical to the spirit of local control.
“A lot of the ideas in that memo require a little more Montpelier-ization of the education system, which is not what my communities have been asking for,” Johnson said.
The Vermont-NEA says it commissioned a report that showed increasing staff-to-student ratios to the levels favored by Scott would result in 4,000 job losses in Vermont schools.