On April 24, 2024

Barstow’s local school budget and Vermont’s school funding are two separate issues

Dear Editor, 

Next week is once again, “Super Tuesday.” On April 30, 11 towns will hold their second school budget vote in hopes of getting voters to the polls. It is clear that the people of Vermont are making a statement to Montpelier that the way in which schools are funded is not sustainable. Across the state, there are calls from school administrators and staff pleading with voters to pass budgets. The alternative, they say, will severely impact the education offerings to our future generations.

We are, however, dealing with two separate but interconnected issues and for the first time in a long time taxpayers are paying attention.

One issue is how the state “counts” students and funds education. Ideas have been proposed to raise taxes on short-term rentals and raise taxes on online software. At our Barstow Unified Union meeting on April 22, it was asked how we can find our way out of this mess at a state level. I suggest those who want to keep taxing the citizens of this state might consider being more business-friendly. Reduce and remove the red tape, tax disadvantages, and building restrictions for commercial entities looking for a place to relocate or housing to build. Attracting businesses would make a positive impact on our declining and aging populations, tax base, declining school enrollment, vacancies in our downtowns, and more. While this is a long-term solution, the problem we’re facing on education funding isn’t about to go away, so let’s plan for the future.

The other issue is the school budget. In the largest voter turnout of recent years, Mendon and Chittenden sent a message. True, the vote failed by only 4 votes, but in a town where the budget typically passes by a large margin, anything close to 50% is a loud statement.

And yet, the school board did nothing. They cut not a single penny from the Barstow budget. They wanted to send back the exact same budget, but were handed a paltry $29,000 savings from the RNESU board. That $29,000 was a portion of the roughly $164,000 cut at the central office level.

To put this in perspective, the central office has had budget increases of $3 million since FY22. It is now a $13 million proposed budget. Since FY21 they have managed to be fiscally responsible with respect to spending against that budget and have averaged a savings of $777,801 per year. It should not be lost on voters that a cut of $164,000 is a fraction of the amount typically found in budget savings each year.   

Put another way, had they done nothing, statistically speaking, we would save that $164,000 and more.

The cost to educate students at BUU has increased 66% since 2019. In 2019 it was $16,047 per actual student, against the actual budget. In 2025, it is proposed to be $26,697. The administration touts a figure of $13,555 of ed spending per student, but don’t be fooled. That figure is per LTWADM, an Act 127 formula that drove our “long term weighted average daily membership” student count to 455.19 students. A far cry from the actual expected K-12 enrollment of 235 students.

Understanding the local budget (total) against the actual number of students we’re educating is a great way to see the ever-increasing budget trend. Artificially inflating the number of students and changing the weighting formula every few years to provide a lower “cost per pupil” provides  an apples to oranges comparison.

Vermont has the second highest cost per pupil in the nation. And for what? Barstow touts proficiency scores above state averages. Not hard to do when the state average for proficiency in math in 8th grade is 28% (Barstow managed 50% proficient). The numbers in math are not significantly better as you look across more grades. Across 3rd to 8th grade, 33.6% proficient on a state level, 58% at Barstow. The subjects of ELA fair slightly better, science slightly worse on a state average.

To the board and the administration, to state lawmakers and the DOE, we need change. If the expectation of the schools is to continue the trajectory of ever increasing costs coupled with poor outcomes, please anticipate a tough road ahead. We have tried for years to spend our way out of this problem, and it has only worked against the desired outcomes.

Whether for or against the still $6.2 million dollar BUU budget on Tuesday, I urge the voters across the state to stay engaged, informed, and educated about the trajectory of school budgets, school funding, and the ever important return provided on your tax investment.

Liam Fracht-Monroe, Mendon

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