By Angelo S. Lynn
Give Gov. Phil Scott credit for utilizing the element of surprise. In his budget address this past Tuesday, Jan. 24, he rocked Montpelier’s world by suggesting that public schools, K-12, freeze their budgets at current spending levels, force teachers to pay more for their health care plans (from roughly 15 to 20 percent), and, starting next year, to reduce or increase school spending based on student population. Furthermore, because Scott wants the changes made now for the 2018 budgets, he proposes scrapping Town Meeting votes on school budgets this year, to be rescheduled on May 23 to allow school boards the extra time to redraft their budgets.
That is, as Scott admitted, bold thinking.
Surprisingly bold. Even encouraging, in that it signals that Scott — who provided few specific ideas to flesh out his vague campaign rhetoric — will be a governor unafraid to tackle the state’s big issues in innovative ways. But Scott’s boldness also either showed a hint of recklessness with unintended consequences, or a calculated political move meant to put Democrats on the defensive.
Here’s why Scott’s K-12 education proposals border on being reckless:
• Freezing school budgets this late in the budget process (school boards and administrations have been refining their budgets since the fall to have them ready for Town Meeting votes on March 7) is not only dismissive of the work already done, but would force through hurried changes for the sole purpose of cutting funds, not seeking ways to better student outcomes. What the governor is seeking, critics say, would require dismissing hundreds of teachers statewide, slashing programs and would likely lead to closing small schools in a few short years. That’s not creating a school system that will be the best in the nation and attract families to move here, as Scott suggests he wants. And, as was rightly said by Geo Honigford, president of the Vermont School Boards Association, if Scott had wanted school boards to level-fund budgets, he should have had the guts to campaign on that issue this past summer and fall.
• For school districts not able to level-fund their budgets without undue cuts, Scott said he would allow a one-time 5 percent assessment on the local Grand List to cover costs — a move that puts that burden fully on the local property tax with no state aid. That would be a serious increase in property taxes; again, exactly the opposite of what Scott says he is trying to achieve.
• By proposing to move higher education funding, retired teachers’ health care and normal liability for teachers’ retirement out of the state’s General Fund and into the Education Fund, there is a high potential to put a greater burden on property taxes. Scott also proposed shifting early childcare and pre-k funding to the Education Fund in the near future. Though he would shift $86 million in General Fund spending to the Education Fund in this proposed budget, that’s a number that could shift year-to-year and leave property taxpayers holding the bag.
• If Scott doesn’t get his way with this budget (and it is unlikely that he will), there is no Plan B and he is left with a $35 million hole in his proposed budget. He will likely blame the Democrats for that shortfall, but the fault lies in basing a budget on a surprise proposal that he and his team knew would be problematic.
• Finally, starting in Fiscal Year 2019, district budgets would be tied more closely to pupil growth rates. Schools seeing a decline in enrollments will be required to reduce budgets accordingly — another state mandate that is fraught with unintended consequences. First, it would likely force many smaller schools to close their doors in the near future; second, sudden drops in a school’s enrollment one year (say a business of 65-100 employees closes suddenly, but then recoups several months or a year later) could force teacher and program cuts that are not easily replaced — all while diminishing the quality of the school, and the community in which the school is based. Even the slow but steady decline is problematic. Such policies create downward spirals in towns of stagnant or declining populations, while boosting communities with population gains. In Vermont, that’s a policy that largely favors Chittenden County (the Burlington area), and one or two other population centers. Does Scott really think it’s good state policy to push more Vermonters to our few high-growth areas, while decimating the more rural parts of the state?
While those concerns present significant obstacles, we applaud Scott’s priority in allocating $9.6 million to early child care and education, and another $6 million for higher education ($4 million for the Vermont State Colleges, $1 million each to the University of Vermont and Vermont Student Assistance Corporation.) These two priorities are essential and Gov. Scott is right to challenge the Legislature to find adequate funding within a K-12 system that has seen declining enrollment for the past two decades.
Also noteworthy is his plan to create an Agency of Economic Opportunity by merging the Agency of Commerce and Community Development with the Department of Labor; his continued funding to fight opiate addiction; extra money for economic development marketing and other measures to promote business growth, and his proposal to establish a $35 million housing bond to spur affordable housing projects.
But the main thrust of his speech — a substantial reform of the state’s K-12 school system — was soured by Scott’s ambush of the Legislature and public school system. It is simply too substantial a change to spring on the Legislature with such short notice.
The right course of action was for Gov. Scott to leave the 2018 budgets untouched, and ask school boards to level-fund their budgets for Fiscal Year 2019 — giving all parties ample time to debate the proposal and make appropriate adjustments. That he chose not to discuss such a radical plan during his campaign, nor involve school boards, school administrators or teachers in the conversation, shows a lack of commitment to a fully informed discussion and a penchant to listen to only part of the Vermont electorate.
It’s a bold plan with merit, to be sure, but unfortunately done in a way that leaves all parties feeling deceived and without a good way to move forward.