By John Flowers, The Addison Independent
Gov. Peter Shumlin on Monday, March 23, called on lawmakers to help him contain what he called one of the state’s top cost-drivers—education—in an effort to make Vermont more fiscally solvent and attractive to job creators. He also made a pitch for efforts to slow the growth of spending on health care (see related story).
Shumlin made his remarks before a crowd at the Vergennes American Legion Hall during a legislative luncheon sponsored by the Bridport Grange and Addison County Farm Bureau.
“I think it’s fair to say we are facing more opportunities, and therefore more difficult decisions, than I can remember bundling into one barrel and putting forward,” Shumlin said. “The agenda is pretty simple: how do we make Vermont’s economy work for all Vermonters? That’s what I wake up every morning trying to do.”
Shumlin said the richest citizens continue to do well, but he added that middle-class and low-income citizens have been enduring stagnant incomes and tough financial times.
“The question is … what can we do to go after the real cost-drivers that are holding back prosperity for so many Vermonters for whom this economy is not working as well as they wish it were?” Shumlin said.
Shumlin said the state must downsize its public school infrastructure to more cost-effectively educate a student population that has shrunk from 110,000 children “just a few years ago” to 78,000 today. “That number is going to continue to drop in the next decade,” Shumlin said, noting the state is gathering information showing where the drop will be most dramatic.
“The bottom line is, we have two problems,” Shumlin said. “We haven’t changed anything in the way we deliver education, we’ve got more staff in our schools today than we had when we had 110,000 students, and we really haven’t changed anything in the way of infrastructure.”
Vermont currently has a student-school staff ratio of 4.7 to 1—the lowest in the country, according to Shumlin. He said half of the state’s elementary schools have lost half their pupil population during the past few decades and noted an annual turnover of one-third of the state’s principals and superintendents.
“We’ve got to ask, ‘What are we doing to property taxpayers?’ and the question we don’t ask enough is, ‘What are we doing to school quality?’” Shumlin said.
Evidence shows that education quality suffers when classes get too small, according to Shumlin. That’s because smaller schools tend to reduce programming to a minimum in order to survive with fewer students, he said.
“When schools get too small, you are taking away options for kids that we should be offering them in a world where it’s critical to have as much education as you can possibly get beyond high school,” Shumlin said.
The governor praised the House Education Committee—chaired by Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol—for passing out bill H.361, which would create larger school districts (of at least 1,100 students) to reduce administration costs and encouraged shared resources among district schools.
Shumlin’s education secretary, Rebecca Holcombe, has been making the rounds to communities throughout the state, presenting local officials with current enrollment data and how those numbers are likely to change during the next five to 10 years. All signs indicate that enrollment will continue to dip statewide, according to Shumlin.
“In many of our small rural communities, if you think your property taxes are high now, it’s a bargain basement sale after the holiday compared to what they will be in 10 years, if nothing changes—if the student count continues to drop,” he said.
The governor said he’s pleased that the communities of Bridgewater and Pomfret voted on Town Meeting Day to consolidate their two schools into one. It’s a move that Shumlin believes will allow the combined school to offer better programs at a lower cost. He challenged other communities with small schools to do the same—if the move makes sense for them. Shumlin believes communities that choose to consolidate schools should be first in line for construction aid to allow them to implement their plans.
“We realize it isn’t one size fits all,” Shumlin said. “We’ve got to make changes in the [state aid] formula, get rid of small school grants, get rid of the phantom student funding—where literally in some schools we are funding, now, more students in empty chairs than we are kids sitting in chairs.”
Shumlin said the process of right-sizing schools won’t be easy, but it will be necessary.
“Must we do this? Yes,” he said.
John Flowers is a reporter at The Addison Independent, a sister paper to The Mountain Times, firstname.lastname@example.org.