Town Meeting Day was kind to local schools this year, as all but five districts have won approval for their budgets. But while a majority of Vermonters may be okay with their local spending plans, the administration of Gov. Phil Scott is not.
Based on the budgets approved this week, overall education spending is slated to go up by about 1.5 percent next year. That’s far less than the 3.5-percent hike that state officials had been bracing for as recently as a couple months ago. It’s even less than the 2.5-percent growth rate that Scott asked for back in November.
“There is no question that local districts worked hard,” says Adam Greshin, Scott’s commissioner of finance. “I mean the governor appreciates that very much. And in fact he’s very impressed with the work they’ve done.”
But, Greshin says that despite districts’ admirable restraint, statewide property tax rates are still projected to rise by an average of 5 to 6 cents next year.
“And the governor’s been very clear that he doesn’t think Vermonters can afford that, so we have still some work to do,” Greshin says.
If lawmakers and the governor want to get that rate increase down to zero, solely by lowering education spending, they’ll need to find a way to trim tens of millions of dollars from the budgets that voters approved Tuesday.
Greshin says there’s only one way now that can happen.
“Our belief is it’s time for state policymakers to take over,” Greshin says.
But not all state policymakers are ready to take those reins.
“Nothing is ever good enough for them. Can’t they celebrate the work that’s being done in our school districts and the work that our school boards have done to restrain costs? I mean, come on,” says Bristol Rep. David Sharpe, who chairs the House Committee on Education.
Sharpe says cost containment is a worthy goal, and one that he shares. But he says local school boards have delivered on that count. And he says widespread support from voters shows that Vermonters by and large approve of the budgets those boards have constructed.
Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, says it’s one thing for elected officials in Montpelier to push for cost containment.
“It’s another thing entirely to walk in the shoes of local school officials and try to do the job both for students and for taxpayers,” Francis says.
Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, says the only reason property tax rates are going up as much as they are next year is because lawmakers and the governor used one-time funds last year to buy down rates for the current tax year.
Getting the property tax rate increase down to zero next year would at this point require a legislative mandate of some kind that forces boards to trim more than $40 million from the budgets they just got approved. Mace says there could be serious consequences to doing so.
“If boards and administrators can’t prepare a budget that is then approved by voters, and have that be their budget, then that calls into question the integrity of the process,” Mace says.
Greshin, however, says the school budgets approved Tuesday outstrip what Vermonters can afford. Earlier this year, the Scott administration offered lawmakers a list of cost containment concepts.
“You know, the big one out there is taking a look at staff-to-student ratios,” Greshin says.
And with payroll expenses accounting for about 80 percent of overall education spending, Francis says staff reductions are likely the only way to come up with the magnitude of cuts needed to avert a tax hike.
“Getting to zero from 5 or 6 cents is going to be difficult. I don’t want to downplay the significance of that. But we think it can happen,” Greshin says.
Whether lawmakers will be willing to let it happen is another question.