Gov. Phil Scott’s latest plan to curb costs in the public school system has received a chilly response from Democratic lawmakers — and organizations that represent school boards, superintendents and teachers in Vermont are also concerned about the governor’s proposal.
Audio for this story will be posted.
There are several elements of the governor’s new plan to contain costs in public schools, but its undeniable cornerstone is a proposal of sorts to reduce staffing levels over the next five years.
Scott isn’t asking for a student-to-staff ratio mandate, and he’s abandoned a previous proposal that would have penalized districts with higher staffing levels.
Instead, Scott wants to balance this year’s education budget by assuming there will be significant reductions in payroll costs in the future, even without a mandate to guarantee that will actually happen.
That assumption makes school officials like Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, very nervous.
“To predetermine an outcome, and assign a dollar value to it, before the thorny work of deciding what the ratios could be … is problematic on its face,” Francis said.
More from VPR — Gov. Scott Unveils New Plan To Avoid Property Tax Increase, But Democrats Are Skeptical [May 1]
Scott wants to use nearly $60 million in one-time money this year to avoid a 7-cent increase in statewide property tax rates. Scott says Vermont can replenish the coffers later, and avoid a bounce in next year’s rates, by setting in motion a series of longer-term cost saving mechanisms — namely reductions in school staff.
Scott’s plan anticipates more than $250 million in reduced payroll expenditures over the next five years. Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, says it’s a dangerous assumption to make.
“Essentially what happens is you create a structural deficit within the education fund, so you’re not raising the revenue you need to raise in order to fund operational expenses,” Mace said.
Both Francis and Mace say districts are prepared to visit the issue of staffing levels. The School Boards Association issued a resolution last year that called for a task force to study the issue of student-to-staff ratios.
Mace, however, says the governor’s plan isn’t in keeping with the spirit of that resolution.
“The administration’s proposal decides what the target is, without any stakeholder input or analysis, and then it appears as though the task force’s job is to help districts reach those targets,” Mace says.
For Francis, the timing of Scott’s proposal — which arrives less than two weeks before the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn — is as problematic as its substance. If Scott wanted to study the viability of staff reductions, Francis says, he could have assembled a task force to study the concept last year.
“And now here we are in what is, seems to be, developing into yet another political contest," Francis said, "when what we need is very serious policy work that shouldn’t be considered and approved at the last minute."
Francis and Mace says it’s the second year in a row that elected officials in Montpelier have taken up major policy questions in the waning days of the session. And Francis says it makes school administrators’ jobs harder than they already are.
“They’re having to contend with a destabilized political environment and frankly not knowing from one session to the next what they’re going to have to contend with,” Francis said.
For the union that represents public school teachers, the governor’s push for staffing reductions could result in a precipitous decline in membership. Scott’s plan relies on net reductions of about 500 school jobs in each of the next five years, though not all of those positions would be teachers.
The administration says those reductions would come about through natural attrition, rather than layoffs. But Vermont-NEA executive director Jeff Fannon says the result would be the same.
“He’s eliminating jobs, and would propose to eliminate more jobs than any other governor in history,” Fannon said.
In the coming days, lawmakers will decide what elements of Scott’s plan, if any, they’re willing to consider. Whether or not they can find a middle ground will determine whether they reach agreement on the budget or whether Vermont sees its second budget veto in as many years.