By Tiffany Danit Pache, VTDigger
Gov. Phil Scott asked voters to reject increases in school spending on Town Meeting Day, but only 18 out of 209 budgets failed — fewer than half the number that were struck down in 2014 when calls for tax relief hit a fever pitch.
Scott voted against the school budget in his town of Berlin and he wasn’t the only one. The $3.5 million budget for the elementary school failed 208-173.
Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, who chairs the Senate Committee on Education, said, “the governor went to town meeting in Berlin and spoke against the budget there and it went down.”
Scott has urged lawmakers to put pressure on schools to level fund budgets because of dramatically declining enrollments. The state once had 105,000 students. There are now fewer than 80,000. The student population dropped by 1,000 last year.
Meanwhile, school spending rates continue to rise. The outgoing Shumlin administration estimated that property taxes would go up 2.35 percent this year.
Turnout is typically low on town meeting, Scott has said, and he hoped to get more people out to vote on Tuesday because he believes only a few school boosters voices are being heard.
“School budget votes are based on many factors and unfortunately only represent a small percentage of voters, therefore, are not necessarily reflective of broad support or opposition to the need for education or property tax reform,” Scott said.
Scott built his budget on the premise that school boards would level fund budgets.The governor proposed a date change for school votes from March to May as part of the proposal.
A Senate panel rejected the school budget vote date change, as did the House.
Scott then urged Vermonters to send a message to Montpelier and vote down school budgets on Town Meeting Day. That tact, too, appears to have failed.
“It didn’t seem to me like there was any kind of message being sent by voters,” Baruth said.
Baruth’s counterpart in the House, Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, said each community votes up or down for different reasons, “Several [defeats] were local issues and that was the right thing for the voters to do.”
As of Tuesday, 18 budgets were defeated. Voters made cuts to one budget and approved increases to eight budgets; 14 communities will vote on school budgets at a later date.
Last year, 11 failed, one passed with cuts and three with increases. In 2015, 22 budgets were defeated, two passed with cuts and four with increases.
“Overall, communities in Vermont this year maintained their strong support for public schools and did not respond to Governor Scott’s call to solve our state’s budget problems by rejecting school budgets,” said Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Board Association.
Mace said concerns about the affordability of the K-12 public education system are legitimate and more needs to be done to deliver tax relief.
Just because a town approves its budget doesn’t mean that it is OK with paying high property taxes, Sharpe said. “There is concern about high property taxes even in communities that pass their budgets. It is a conundrum – for lack of a better word – because voters want to support the education of their children so they vote to support the school budget.”
School budgets failed in the following towns: Alburgh, Barre City (elementary school), Berlin, Cabot, Castleton/Hubbarton, Fair Haven, Fair Haven Union High School, Hardwick, Hazen Union High School, Milton, St. Johnsbury, South Burlington, Spaulding High School, Swanton, Twin Valley Schools, Vernon, Windham and Wolcott.