By Lee J. Kahrs
BRANDON — The Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union has no intention of retooling its school budgets or waiting until a May date to have voters weigh in, despite what Gov. Phil Scott outlined in his budget address.
In it, Scott outlined a plan to take money out of the state education fund to put into preschool and higher education, while directing K-12 school boards across the state to go back and level-fund budgets that have already been approved for a vote on Town Meeting Day. Level funding means crafting a budget that contains no increase in spending over the previous budget.
“I’m not asking school districts for anything more than what I’ve asked from state government,” Scott said. “We will be tightening our belts in Montpelier and rethinking every program and service at every level.”
Scott also proposed a May 23 date for taxpayers to vote on the revised school budgets in their districts.
The newly-elected Republican cited the continuous decline in student enrollment and the perceived inability of school boards to reduce per pupil spending despite having fewer students. Vermont’s property tax system is tied directly to education spending, so the higher the local cost of education, the more local property taxes rise. The problem is that because of the rising cost of health care, special education, utilities and other budget items out of a board’s control, the more cuts must be made in electives like languages, the arts and athletic programs. The steady decline in student numbers across the state over the last 15 years does not translate to an apples-to-apples reduction in costs because of the factors mentioned above.
Rebuke of Scott’s directive from school districts and boards was swift. Opponents say that last year’s Act 46 school consolidation legislation hasn’t been in place long enough to effect real cost savings. The bill was passed during the 2015 leglislative session and directed school districts to reconfigure themselves in order to consolidate central office, special education, transportation, and some staffing in order to streamline the way education was delivered and to cut costs.
The RNeSU’s newly-formed Otter Valley Unified Union School District was among the first wave of consolidated districts in Vermont under Act 46. In fact, the proposed OVUU budget approved by the board on Jan. 18, is the first budget for the new consolidated district. The new district includes Otter Valley Union High School, Neshobe School, Leicester, Whiting, Sudbury, and Lothrop Elementary Schools, and Barstow. The district member towns are Brandon, Goshen, Leicester, Whiting, Sudbury, Pittsford, and Mendon, which has high school choice.
The RNeSU budget has been crafted, proposed and sent to the printers in the school report. The Town Meeting and School Meeting warnings have been approved and filed.
“I think it needs to be understood that deadlines are in place for Town Meeting and they have passed,” said RNeSU Superintendent Jeanne Collins. “We have put our budgets to bed and our reports are being printed. In my estimation that’s between $500,000 and $1 million that the state has spent, and we can’t stop that train.”
Collins added that she does not expect the Legislature to uphold changing the school budget vote date from Town Meeting Day to May 23.
She also contends that the governor’s proposal is not only short-sighted and poorly thought-out, but that it will actually raise property taxes, not lower them.
“The timing of this … If Gov. Scott wanted to look at this for the future year, this was not the appropriate time to do this. If school districts level-fund and he raids the education fund for higher education, teacher retirement and pre-k, property taxes will go up. Even at level-funded budgets, there will still be a $35 million shortfall and property taxes will go up.”
She also questioned the legitimacy of funding higher education at the expense of K-12 education.
“K-12 would be competing with higher education,” she said. “But, you can’t get to higher ed without quality K-12.”
RNeSU Business Manager Brenda Fleming added that unlike higher education, K-12 education is mandated in the Vermont constitution.
There is also the question of legality. Scott proposed that those communities that go above a level-funded school budget could raise local property assessments up to 5 percent with voter approval.
But Collins contends that would violate the Brigham Decision, the result of a lawsuit brought by a family in Whiting that challenged educational inequity between poorer towns and wealthier towns that had more valuable property values. The 1997 Vermont Supreme Court decision found Vermont’s existing educational funding system unconstitutional, because it allowed students in towns with higher total property values to receive a higher level of education funding per pupil than students in towns with lower property values.
“Allowing a 5 percent assessment to be raised in a community creates inequity in a community, and that violates Brigham,” Collins said of Scott’s mandate, “so, it just strikes me as not a well thought out proposal but a political stance.”
The new proposed OVUU budget contains a net education spending amount of $19,088,683, a 1.34 percent increase over current spending or $251,000.
The OVUU Board approved a proposed budget that included a reduction in staff of 4.8 full-time equivalent teachers and three paraeducators. They also approved a new structure for the distict’s smallest schools, Sudbury and Whiting, which will be considered one school with two campuses. Starting in September, preschool through second grade will be at the Whiting School and third through sixth will be in Sudbury. The consolidation allowed the board to cut one full-time teacher from Whiting. Also beginning in September, there will be a new principal for both schools (see accompanying story) as current principal Ed Barnwell is retiring in June.
Despite the increase, property taxes will drop by 4 cents, to $1.46 under the Act 46 legislation, which has state-approved tax relief built in for districts that consolidated within a prescribed timeframe.
The district got an 8-cent cut in property taxes over the current fiscal year. In the coming second year, the incentive is 4 cents, and the third year, it will be 2 cents. After that, the Act 46 property tax incentive ends.
Rutland Northeast has scheduled two budget forums, one was held Feb. 7 at 6 p.m. at the Brandon Town Hall with a screening of the film “Most Likely to Succeed” and the next is Feb. 16 at 6 p.m. at Otter Valley Union High School.
Superintendent Collins reiterated that she plans to stay the course with the current proposed budget. She cited the fact that Vermont Sec. of State Jim Condos has advised school districts and town clerks to follow the current law with school budget warnings.
“We have no plan to change course,” Collins said. “We are following the existing law. The governor has to understand that a significant number of days and hard work by staff went into these budgets. There were no easy decisions. The goal was fiscal responsibility and equal education opportunities, and I think we achieved that.”