Statewide property tax rates are on track to rise by approximately 2 percent next year. But while the projected increase isn’t as high as some had feared, elected officials say it’s nonetheless time to reduce spending on public education.
Talk to just about any politician these days about what they learned during their recent electoral campaigns, and they’ll likely tell you just how upset Vermont voters are with rising property tax rates.
Whether knocking on doors or attending campaign events, even staunch defenders of the state’s public education system say the message from voters was clear. And Gov. Peter Shumlin is leading the chorus.
“The bottom line is we have spending problem in Vermont,” Shumlin says.
Shumlin convened a press conference Monday morning to announce that, based on current trends, the statewide property tax rate for residents and non-residents alike will go up by 2 cents next year. It’s a better story than this year, when rates are headed up 4 cents for residents and 7.5 cents increase for non-residents.
But the Democratic governor isn’t celebrating.
“Some may see that as good news, since it’s a lot lower than last year. But we all have to remember that with Vermonters across the board struggling to pay property taxes, no increase is good news,” Shumlin says.
So what is Peter Shumlin going to do about it? That’s not yet entirely clear. Shumlin has dispatched his secretary of education to school boards across the state, where she’s administering her own curriculum on the severity of the spending trends.
Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe says that on average, schools employ one paid staff member for every 4.7 students. And as student counts continue to dive, it’s a ratio she says will eventually bankrupt some districts.
“We have school districts where they’re looking at, just based on the population projections, increases of 60 to 80 percent in their tax rate over the next five years, just associated with that attrition, with that loss in student enrollment,” Holcombe says.
Shumlin says he hopes that by providing districts with this information, and prevailing upon them to act on it, local decision makers will work on their own to solve the problem. But while Shumlin says solving the spending problem will likely require staffing reductions, he hasn’t offered up any grand legislative solutions to the problem, nor is sure one exists.
“So there is no silver bullet that’s going to solve our property tax challenge. What it will take is lots of loads of buckshot, lots of good ideas, that we bring together to help reduce spending while we improve, while we improve quality and outcomes for our kids in Vermont,” Shumlin says. “What works for one community won’t work for another community. And if you mandate something from Montpelier that can’t be achieved, that doesn’t do any good to help solve the problem.”
Shumlin says he’s open to some form of legislative intervention in the spending and governance decisions of local school boards. But he says the likelier path to success will be if Montpelier uses its powers and authority to assist districts in executing their own plans, rather than imposing mandates from on high.
House Speaker Shap Smith, meanwhile, is on the hunt for a piece of far-reaching legislation that would mandate the kinds of education reforms he says are probably necessary to deliver the relief taxpayers have demanded.
“I think that Vermonters expect us to make changes over the next year and I heard that in the many doors that I knocked and the many conversations that I had with people,” Smith says.
Smith has assembled a team of legislators and policy analysts, with the hope of developing a system-wide overhaul for the Legislature to consider when it convenes in January. He says there’s no guarantee consensus will emerge.
“Whether people will be galvanized to move all together in one direction I think is still in question, and I’m hopeful,” Smith says.
Vermont’s student enrollment has dropped 20 percent over the last 17 years, while the number of paid staff in public schools has held steady.