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Vermont Schools

How to Contain Costs?

School budgets are the talk of Vermont just now, as they generally are in the weeks leading up to Town Meeting. This year, the conversation has a sharper edge than usual. Gov. Peter Shumlin pointedly blames school districts for spending too much and urges school boards to carefully scrutinize budgets that propose to increase per-pupil spending. School boards counter that districts have a lot of fixed costs and that spending is not the problem; they blame lawmakers for failing to transfer sufficient General Fund revenue into the Education Fund, thus forcing greater reliance on property taxes. Householders blame everybody for higher tax bills that seem inexplicable in a state where the school-age population is declining.

This blame game has been played for a long time. Now, as state education spending and taxes continue to rise, the political stakes are rising, too, and there’s a sense in Montpelier that school costs must be contained. But how? The answer isn’t obvious, in part because there’s not much agreement about what’s propelling the increases. Some lawmakers point to the state’s progressive funding formula, which equalizes spending across districts but which arguably shields local taxpayers from the full consequences of budgetary decisions. “It’s no surprise school boards are frustrated and voters are angry,” Rep. Adam Greshin, I-Warren, told Vtdigger.org. “No one can understand our education finance system and everyone suspects mischief. Rather than lecturing school boards to hold the line, the governor should acknowledge the state’s role in the problem and invite school boards to be part of the solution.”

Others fault Vermont’s small schools and low student-teacher ratio for per-pupil spending among the highest in the country. At the request of legislators, the Agency of Education recently drew up a report recommending minimum class sizes and tax penalties for districts that fail to enforce them — a proposal to streamline staffing, a major cost-driver, and perhaps to force school consolidation in some districts.

The House Education Committee is drafting a bill that would reduce the number of school districts (and school boards) and eliminate altogether the state’s 44 supervisory unions, the administrative units that have overseen schools for more than 100 years. In 2006, Education Commissioner Richard Cate put forward a similar plan that went nowhere: Many suspected a hidden agenda to close small schools beloved by residents.

The impact of district consolidation on both school budgets and school quality is difficult to gauge because there’s mixed and contradictory evidence from other states. If properly executed, consolidation can save money; but it often alienates parents, pits communities against one another and has the potential to negatively affect academic performance. There appears to be a correlation between school district size and school size: The larger the district, the larger the schools, and larger schools tend to perform more poorly than small ones, according to research. District consolidation can also depress house values — a factor given that real estate values affect property tax revenues. Vermont is known for its scholastic excellence, and its small schools contribute to relatively high achievement, which is why many parents are attached to the status quo.

That said, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify Vermont’s many supervisory unions and districts, and stream- lining would probably achieve efficiencies. In theory, districts would save money by sharing bus transportation, buying supplies in bulk, and — here’s the nub of it — cutting back on administrative personnel. The Vermont school system has a lot of administrators — too many, according to Shumlin. If the state is really serious about slowing the rate of spending, it will have to eliminate not just districts and supervisory unions, but some of the people who work in them.