Town Meeting day this year did not bring a taxpayer revolt over school budgets, yet officials say the relative quiet on the budget front does not reduce the need to make fundamental changes to school governance and to the property tax system.
One of the big questions coming into Town Meeting day was whether voters would reject as many school budgets as they did last year, when 35 budgets were defeated.
According to the Vermont School Boards Association, the record this year is quite different. Based on its most recent tally, 218 budgets were approved and 20 were defeated.
"The budgets that were presented were on average less than three percent, so we had a lot of very modest budgets being presented,” says Steve Dale, the group’s executive director. “And the second thing is that last year, going into Town Meeting, the General Assembly had not really spent any time talking in detail about the property tax issue."
This year, legislative leaders have vowed to make property tax reform one of the top priorities. Dale says the results of the Town Meeting budget votes will help keep this issue on the front burner during the second half of the session.
"It doesn't change the fundamental dynamics that exist,” Dale says. “Over the long run, we need to make sure we have a system that can adapt to the changing demographics of our state and make sure that we're still running a high quality program."
Washington Sen. Ann Cummings, the chairwoman of the Senate Education committee, says her panel is committed to passing out an education reform initiative in the coming weeks.
"It keeps the pressure on to do something. I think it keeps the pressure on us, and it also keeps the pressure on local school boards to say, ‘You know, we just can't keep doing the things that we have and hope this all goes away. It's not going to go away and we are going to have to do something,’” Cummings says.
Last week, the House Education committee approved a plan that calls for larger school districts throughout the state. The bill also places a 2 percent cap on a town's per pupil spending level.
Cummings says the bill contains some thoughtful provisions. But she doesn't support the 2 percent cap because she believes it will have a very negative impact on many smaller schools.