On April 24, 2024

Where is the equity?

Dear Editor,

In Morrisville, a recent Front Porch Forum post reads: “Vote down the school budget! They don’t want to just survive, they want to thrive.”

Is this really where we are in 2024? Are Vermonters really ready to let our most vulnerable children be the victims of state level politics?

The Brigham Decision was predicated on the state providing “equal educational opportunities.” For some reason, this seems to have been suddenly forgotten. As the governor and lawmakers scramble to save face with last minute legislation and finger-pointing, it is time to admit that Act 127 has failed to deliver on its promise of equal opportunity. Instead, it has resulted in Vermonters voting down school budgets as, “the only way to send a message to Montpelier.”

Can anyone really argue this new formula is just? In Elmore-Morristown, we now face our third budget vote and our tax rate is approaching the lowest possible by law. The new budget reduces a high school English teacher, instructional coaches, our middle school language program, and behavior supports. It will be devastating to our students, some of the most vulnerable in the state. Meanwhile, we are experiencing higher needs than ever before. The mental health challenges, pandemic, and trauma in our community have resulted in children coming to school with complex needs. We are building in-house programs and training more staff in crisis prevention techniques. We have invested in preschool to provide early intervention and are pulling from our academic areas to provide more behavioral support. We provide after school enrichment to strengthen our community and focus on improving academics for all of our children because they deserve it. All of this is costly and requires a great deal of time and energy. We now find ourselves with a school budget that has been slashed, making our work nearly impossible.

Our district is far below the statewide spending average and projected to be the 7th lowest in the state. The gut punch is that we may still face opposition with this budget due to the state-level rhetoric espoused by our governor and others that have lumped all districts into one category: high spenders.

As the superintendent of Lamoille South, I have watched over the past eight months as lawmakers have neglected to address the “high spenders” when they had the chance. What they are now attacking is the easy target: vulnerable communities. It was clear in November that some districts had increased their spending by as much as 50%. A few even added millions to their capital reserves or used the education fund to pay down construction bonds. With a statewide healthcare increase, it was the perfect storm and the obvious solution was a spending cap until this could be resolved. We have a shared system and even a cap as high as 15% would have prevented this disaster. This idea was presented to the House Ways and Means Committee in January and the Senate Finance Committee in February. Unfortunately, it was dismissed as “politically unpopular” and now some of the poorest districts in the state are facing deep cuts and repeated budget failures. Other districts are facing dramatic tax increases that will force people out of their homes. By slowing the growth of the education fund, we could have provided enough for all children and reduced the burden on our taxpayers.

What is most concerning about this moment is that the governor and legislators knew this was likely when Act 127 was signed. In fact, they publicly stated that to avoid this very situation, new revenues were needed before implementation. The solution in 2022 was to design an income-based tax system to fund education. Obviously, that never came to fruition and the solution now? Blame the schools and vote down budgets. Simultaneously, we are funding private schools with public dollars! These schools have lobbyists and seem to control our state board of education. They are certainly not reducing their budgets as tuition keeps climbing. Some even have full-time faculty members serving on powerful legislative committees. We have been ignoring this attack on public education and asking more of those serving our most vulnerable. Where is the equity?

These schools and communities need our help now — not yesterday or next year but now! I am hopeful at this crisis moment that the governor and others will come out and show their commitment to public education. We need emergency legislation that provides high need schools with the funding they deserve. We need legislators to openly admit Act 127 only made the problem worse. If this doesn’t occur, the courts must step in and take care of our kids.  The Vermont Constitution demands it.

Ryan Heraty

Superintendent Lamoille South Supervisory Union, Elmore, Morristown, Stowe

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