The Senate Education committee has unanimously voted to oppose Gov. Phil Scott's plan to mandate that all school budgets be leveled-funded next year — and that rejection has broad budget implications.
That's because the governor had hoped to deal with a budget gap in the state's General Fund, in part, by transferring early education, higher education and teacher retirement programs over to the Education Fund.
The roughly $50 million price tag for this transfer was to be offset by a plan to require that all local school budgets not grow at all next year. The governor's proposal would also require all teachers to pay for 20 percent of their health care premiums.
Because many school boards are finalizing their budgets for next year, the governor proposed moving all local budget votes from Town Meeting Day in March to late May to give the boards more time to reduce their budgets.
Senate Education chairman Phillip Baruth says the governor's plan is unfair to local school boards.
“I think it is self-evident, at this point, that it's too late for many communities, unless they scrap all of their work, including printed ballots, and get rid of their Town Meeting Day vote,” said Baruth. “Which they are highly reluctant to do."
House Minority Leader Don Turner says he's very concerned about the rejection of the governor's plan. Turner admits that the proposal represents a "top-down" approach to educational funding. But he's says he's willing to support this new state mandate because something has to be done to bring education spending under control.
"I mean, that's not the way that I do business and I've not been a big believer of that, but I don't know how we get this school spending so that we can get better student outcomes if we don't start taking this type of approach,” said Turner. “Again the governor has taken this bold stand. Let's talk about it instead of just saying it's dead on arrival."
House Education chairman David Sharpe says he opposes the governor's proposed mandate because he thinks it's being done primarily to reduce spending pressure in the General Fund.
"He dumped a lot of costs into the Education Fund, and that's where he needed to try to address the issue of the imbalance now in the Education Fund,” said Sharpe. “So he did so by mandating what schools could spend."
Sharpe says the governor's plan will also decimate local control over important education decisions.
"If the governor is going to tell school districts what they can spend and he's going to inject himself into the bargaining process about what teachers get paid, it seems like he just wants to run the school system from Montpelier,” said Sharpe. “Why doesn't he just propose one school district for the state of Vermont, like Hawaii has?"
Administration Secretary Susanne Young says the governor has offered his plan in order to combine all spending on early education, K-through-12 education and higher education into one cohesive fund. She says it's critical to do this without spending any additional money on the state's overall education budget.
"What we're trying to do is sort of stop the growth at that $1.6 billion level, start to make investments around the edges,” said Young. “And smooth out a system so that it is serving all Vermont children from pre-K, early ed, through higher ed to create a better outcome."
Although the Senate Education committee rejected the governor's level funding mandate in a straw vote, Chairman Baruth says he's willing to look at Scott's plan to increase investments in early and higher education. The challenge will be finding ways to pay for these programs.
In a written statement, the Scott Administration expressed disappointment that the Senate Education committee didn't take more time to review the governor's proposal.
Administration officials say they're optimistic that their proposal will receive a more favorable reaction in the House. However, House Education leaders have strongly criticized the governor's plan.