Two years ago, I wrote an op-ed that opened: “The Legislature can work with local communities to improve education, or it can push them around.”
This is the fundamental choice that the governor and lawmakers continued to wrestle with this session. In 2015, the debate was over school district consolidation. This year, the discussion hinges on savings from lower premiums for teachers’ health insurance, which have already been set for 2018. Both issues involve the state imposing control over local school management, and both have profound implications for communities.
While framed as a way to reduce property taxes, this latest push for more state control appears to be coming from a desire to solve chronic General Fund revenue problems without raising General Fund taxes.
In January, the governor proposed moving $50 million in General Fund costs to property taxes and leaning on local school boards to make cuts to cover these costs. While House and Senate leaders rightly rejected that idea, the Senate itself decided last month to push $8 million of General Fund obligations onto property taxes. Same bad idea, just smaller scale.
Then when everyone thought the 2017 legislative session was about to close at the beginning of May, the governor proposed that the state take over health insurance negotiations with teachers — even though teachers are employees of local school districts, not the state. He has suggested that if the Legislature does not give him this authority, he will veto the budget.
The governor’s simplistic and unnecessary proposal has created chaos in Montpelier and put the Legislature two weeks beyond its scheduled adjournment. The administration has provided little information about how this hastily drawn plan, which would upset long-established labor law, would work. A seven-page memo by Legislative Council lawyers lays out myriad problems with and unanswered questions about the proposal.
Who knew that health care negotiations with teachers could be so complicated?
While Legislative leaders are right to oppose the governor’s intervention into local school district labor negotiations, they have nevertheless been floating their own state intervention proposals, trying to extract savings from local school districts, much as the governor had proposed back in January.
All of the time, effort, and heartache that has gone into wresting control from local communities — for no apparent good reason — might be better spent working with them. Instead of assuming that school boards and local voters — the same voters who elected legislators and the governor — are incapable of making sound decisions about our public schools, maybe the governor should start a conversation about something other than extracting money from public education to fill General Fund gaps.
Maybe we could talk about the children that the state is charged with educating and educators’ challenges of getting that job done in a time of unprecedented income inequality.
Paul A. Cillo, Hardwick
Cillo is the president of Public Assets Institute.