In West River Valley, A Conversation About Education Spending, Tax Rates, And Local Control

Nov 9, 2018

Homeowners often complain about property taxes. But efforts to curb property tax increases by consolidating control of schools doesn't sound too appealing, either. This school year VPR reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman is following the West River school district in Southern Vermont to understand how it deals with the budget process and consolidation questions. The following story is an installment in that series.

Neil Pelsue grew up in the West River Valley in Windham County.

Pelsue, or “Bucky,” as he’s known in these parts, is the kind of guy who gets his town report, reads it, and is never afraid to press the school board about the money it's requesting.

“You could ask the board members and they would say that Bucky asks questions,” he says.
Bucky says his taxes are pretty high.

And he admits he’s voted down a school budget once or twice.

Usually, he says, because the board’s not spending enough on academics. Never because of how the budget affects his tax rate.

 “If you’re going to have a good education you need to be able to provide for high quality teachers and programs,” he said. “And, you don’t get those at Woolworth’s.”

Last year voters across the state approved  97 percent of the school budgets on the first try.

Here in Newfane the budget passed even though spending was up more than four percent.

Newfane is a member of the newly merged West River Modified Union School District. Even though some people think their taxes are high they aren't willing to give up local control of spending decisions.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Vermont’s ongoing debate about education spending repeats itself year after year.
School boards build their budgets in the winter, and people cast their votes around Town Meeting Day.

The lawmakers and the governor get all the numbers later in March and April, wring their hands over the high cost of education, but conclude there’s really nothing substantial they can do because the local decisions have already been made.

And as school boards build their budgets over the next few months, the whole cycle starts up again.

Emily Long has represented Newfane on the local school board for 24 years, and she says it’s way past time to change the conversation.

“I feel like we have been told so many times that our spending is too high, and our property taxes are too high that we’re not taking a step back and thinking about really what do we value about our public education system,” Long said. “I think, that’s where we need to start talking.”

Long is also the state representative from Newfane, and she’s on the House Education Committee.

"I feel like we have been told so many times that our spending is too high, and our property taxes are too high that we're not taking a step back and thinking about really what do we value about our public education system." — Emily Long, Newfane Representative

She says the last two sessions have been pretty bruising, with Gov. Phil Scott vetoing the state budget to try to control education spending.

She understands that people are concerned about their property taxes. She hears plenty about it from her constituents.

People say the statewide property tax formula is confusing. And it is.

But Long believes  people understand that when they cast their votes for their schools they’re making a statement about their priorities.

“So the school districts make the decision around spending, not the Legislature,” Long said. “So, I think there’s often a misunderstanding across the state that we’re the ones in Montpelier who set spending, and we get the blame for it. But we believe deeply that local communities should be able to vote and set their spending levels.”

John Flores, left and Carol Hatcher live in Newfane. Hatcher says she considers how school budgets affects kids and families, not what the budget will do to her taxes.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Ruth Daigneault is another longtime West River Valley resident, and she says administrators should probably get a little less money, and if you really got into the budget you would likely  find some savings here and there.

But Daigneault says if there’s any way to keep her taxes down, she wants the people in the West River Valley to decide.

“I think the local people should definitely control their schools because they know their needs. They know their wants,” Daigneault. “And I think people don’t mind, as a rule, if they have had children or they have grandchildren.”

And Carol Hatcher said she notices the tax increase when she pays her bill.

But when it’s time time to cast a vote for the school budget Hatcher says she just doesn’t consider how it will affect her household.

“When I’m thinking about voting I’m thinking about the effect it’s having on families and children,” says Hatcher. “I’m not thinking of anything else. So I do think that the true feelings of people at least in this town, and probably in many little towns, are trying to do the right thing by the services that we have in our town.”

Education funding is already shaping up to be a priority for the governor and for lawmakers when they return for the 2019 legislative session.

But as long as voters are making the decisions about their own schools, and their own kids, Montpelier will have very few options for exerting direct control over spending.

 

This story is part of a long-term VPR project called "Multiple Choice: The Price and Cost of Education." 

Explore the full series here: https://bit.ly/2pKW4Xc

During the 2018-2019 school year, VPR's Howard Weiss-Tisman will follow the West River Modified Union Education District and file reports as the school district tries to navigate this change and uncertainty. In the course of the project, we'll meet the families, school staff and community members who make the whole deal work, every day.