By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger
It’s budgeting season for school boards and keeping education costs down is a priority for the Scott administration. The state’s student population continues to shrink, schooling costs are still going up and most Vermonters haven’t had wage increases in years. In a memo to school boards, the Agency of Education is recommending cuts to administration, teachers, paraprofessionals and support staff.
“I am asking boards, as custodians of public dollars, to do all they can to make sure we are making the best possible use of public dollars to ensure equitable access to high quality education for our children,” Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe told VTDigger.
Vermont currently employs one adult for every four children in the state’s public school system. According to an Oct. 4 memo from Holcombe, that ratio is headed toward one adult for every three students.
Holcombe said some districts are taking advantage of teacher retirements to shift the ratios.
“A lot of systems are beginning to use attrition to manage numbers of staff, to keep them in line with numbers of students, but also to shift the mix of skills they have on staff,” she said.
The memo points to a problem caused when districts hire more support staff, administrators and paraprofessionals who assist with special education students but are not licensed teachers.
More and more, research is showing that special education students perform better when taught by a classroom teacher rather than working one on one with a paraprofessional, according to the agency.
One-on-one attention “costs a lot and erodes our educational goals for these children. We need to take a look statewide at the use of special education paraprofessionals and ask if we are using them in appropriate ways,” Holcombe wrote.
Martha Allen, president of the Vermont NEA, doesn’t agree with cutting services to special education students. Students are suffering from trauma, the opiate crisis, poverty and behavioral and learning disabilities. There are not enough licensed special educators to handle the needs, according to Allen.
“If cuts take place because of belts tightening, because of charts and graphs, and our neediest children don’t have the adult supervision they need to cope with their challenges, that concerns me,” she said.
The memo asks school boards to think long and hard about how they are investing in and staffing their schools.
Nicole Mace, who heads up the Vermont School Boards Association, said this discussion isn’t new. Holcombe made a similar request in 2014 when the adult to student ratio was 1 to 5.
Mace said school boards need good information and guidance from the agency to make the right decisions about how to adjust staffing, but the agency and Legislature need also to think about what they require of school districts. “On the one hand there are new requirements for licensed positions such as a work-based learning coordinator,” Mace said.
Vermont has had the lowest student-to-teacher ratio in the country for the last four years. The ratios are even lower than other similarly sized rural states, such as Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. Vermont’s student-to-teacher ratio is 10.55 to 1. The next lowest ratio is Maine with a 12.22 to 1 student-to-teacher, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Nationally, classes with fewer than 20 students are considered small, and in middle and secondary school low student counts can actually hurt student performance.
“While Vermonters love our micro classrooms and low ratios, they are a very expensive way to educate our children,” Holcombe stated.
If the state’s public schools and publicly funded nonprofit private schools change staffing to 12 or 13 students per teacher it would free up “critical dollars,” according to the agency. “In some regions with very high spending per pupil, adjusting ratios through retirements would reduce the tax burden on our communities,” the memo states.
Vermont is among 10 states losing money because the school districts are too small, according to a 2013 American Progress Report on school district consolidations. By merging into larger districts and eliminating redundant costs, researchers estimated the state would save more than $54 million.
Act 46 is meant to right-size school districts, but most parts of the state are still in the process of merging. Some that are ahead have already realized savings through reducing staff, such as Rutland Northeast, according to the memo.
Another drag on taxpayers is “micro” schools – as in smaller than small, the memo states. Some schools in Vermont operate with only 15 or 20 students.
“In some cases, the entire student body could fit in a neighboring school seven minutes away on a paved road, without incurring additional cost, and we could still maintain student-to-teacher ratios that are less than half the national average,” according to the memo, that called out general education private schools that accept public dollars.
AOE data implies that the smallest schools are least able to get rid of teachers when they lose students. That means the more schools, public and private, that taxpayers support while enrollments plunge, the more the state has to tax and spend.
“We have had substantial declines in enrollment, and most Vermonters have not experienced real income growth and are struggling with affordability. We have an obligation to make every state dollar go as far as it can to provide for the public interest and our children, in the most affordable way possible,” Holcombe said.
It doesn’t help that the Legislature used a large amount of one-time money to keep property taxes artificially low and in the next budget cycle at least $50 million dollars will need to be put back into the education fund.
The agency provides data on each school district’s staffing ratios and directs state boards to ask a series of questions when putting together their budget, including:
How many administrators do you need? (School districts have between three and 40 administrators with 15 as a median.)
How many staff members per pupil do you need? Does your current staffing reflect habit or need?
How many teachers do you need? The number of students per teacher ranges from five to 25 in Vermont schools.
How many paraprofessionals do you need and how are you using them?
“Before making a hire, systems should consider current ratios and current configurations, and evaluate what levels of staffing actually make sense,” Holcombe said and added that teachers are dealing with many new challenges, including moving to personalized learning plans. Providing students and teachers with the right support makes a bigger difference than providing lots and lots of supports, she said.
Mace said the data will be helpful for school boards and she appreciates that the secretary sent it out. “It will be useful for boards to understand where they sit in the statewide picture, but what would be more helpful is answering how we meet the staffing levels given all the other needs that have to be met,” she said.