Moats: School Funding

Jun 5, 2018

Ever since I began writing about Vermont schools — more than 40 years ago — I’ve been struck by a couple of things.

First, I’ve seen how local schools in the state’s many small towns draw out the best from their communities — dedicated board members, committed parents, and hard-working teachers.

My experience has been colored partly by the town where I’ve lived most
of that time — a small rural town like many in the state — where my kids got their start in classes of 10 to 15 students.

Second, I’ve seen how policymakers at the state level have struggled to balance competing demands — to manage state finances, and also to placate taxpayers. Schools usually get caught in the middle.

The present impasse between Gov. Phil Scott and the Democratic Legislature is due in part to confusion on Scott’s part. He’s determined not to raise taxes, which means he is resisting a budget that calls for an increase in the state property tax. But an increase in the state property tax comes from decisions by voters all across the state at local school district meetings on budgets for their local schools. For politicians at the state level to refuse to set a tax rate to fulfill the demands of local voters is counter to the way the system is supposed to work and undermines local democracy.
Vermont’s schools are not uniformly wonderful. No human endeavor is. Some school boards are dysfunctional; so are some faculties. There are ways to correct problems like that, and all indicators suggest Vermont’s schools rank high in the nation. One reason is local involvement, which is why the system put in place 20 years ago preserved local decision-making.

State politicians make a mistake when they promise property tax payers that they’ll lower property taxes. That’s not their job. It’s the job of voters at town meeting. The state can pitch in with money from the state budget, but it’s constrained from overdoing it because of other demands on state money.

That dilemma encourages governors to hatch other plans for saving money - and governors of both parties have leaped in. But arbitrary staffing limits or other schemes imposed by Montpelier usually only distract from the business of assisting schools with the job of helping students to learn and thrive.

I hope our political leadership can find a way to let our schools do their jobs.