By John Klar, candidate for 2020 Rep. governor
Like a dragon eating its tail, Vermont’s bureaucracy continues to bloat like a runaway coronavirus, exponentially expanding “services” even as these very burdens drive more citizens into poverty, drug use, or emigration to more affordable states. A particularly virulent area of indefatigable expansion is schools.
In 2013, Vermont held the distinction of having the lowest student-teacher ratio in the nation (10:1). This might be a good thing — if it were affordable.
Recently, Vermont enacted sweeping consolidation (Act 46) of its public schools, closing many small rural schools under the pretense of saving money — yet costs instead increased substantially. In 2018, the Green Mountain State’s schools’ administration expenses were exceptionally expensive: Vermont’s relatively highest spending category per pupil was in school administration ($1,296; U.S. average $651), which was second highest only to D.C. ($1,447). Vermont ranked sixth in teacher salaries ($6,743 per pupil, U.S. average $4,603). This bloat in school administrators relative to student population is a national infection, but Vermont’s intractable bureaucrats are particularly agile.
Vermont’s anemic economy, struggling under high taxes and regulations, leads many regular wage earners to leave (with their children). Yet declining student numbers do not translate into a decline in administrators, any more than declining taxpayer incomes restrain those state workers’ incomes and benefits.
Vermont’s 53 school superintendents receive an average $155,417 salary, or 2.59 times the state’s median income of $60,076. Neighboring New Hampshire’s superintendents receive a multiple of 2.21 ($163,809/$74,057); Massachusetts, 2.27 ($175,590/$77,378. Vermont has the highest poverty rate of these three (11%), yet spends $8,237,101 annually on superintendents, despite declining student enrollment (a 25.5% decrease from 1997 to 2016). Its school system is now 49th in the nation in size, but No. 2 in costs as a percentage of median income ($18,290/$60,076, with New York at No. 1).
Five years ago Robert Letovky voiced a cogent criticism of this escalating failure in the Burlington Free Press.
“80% of school budgets consist of compensation for teachers and staff, yet no serious public conversation has addressed how costs have reached these levels and whether taxpayers can continue supporting them. … Labor costs per pupil increased in 2012 by 6.6%, double the national rate. … One must question a process where a small minority of the population – unionized teachers – can annually extract salary increases significantly above both the inflation rate and the levels of income increases earned by the vast majority of Vermonter taxpayers.”
Worse, Vermont’s pension system is one of many underfunded in the country, estimated to be some $4.5 billion in the red. The actual shortfall is most certainly much higher, because the state has employed extraordinarily optimistic projections for returns on invested funds to understate true liabilities, coupled with equally unrealistic estimates of future benefits. This threatens Vermont’s credit rating, ensuring future conflict between teachers and duped taxpayers.
Vermont’s fiscal denial of its plight is an escalating suicide pact, on course to implode. Many small rural schools have been closed, leading to a high-profile lawsuit by 33 school districts challenging the Act 46 legislation: a decision by the state’s highest court is pending. Whatever the outcome, teachers and other administrators will ultimately find themselves in open war with desperate taxpayers unable to foot the bill. In the middle will be students — the legislators responsible will head for the hills, leaving others to mop up their intractable mess.
Vermonters truly value their teachers, who are asked to deal with ever greater problems in children due to anxiety, broken homes, drug abuse, and behavioral issues. Bloating bureaucracy is not so simple as blaming one side versus another: the problem is a modern one, caused by decaying community and rural values, and economic centralization.
As Wendell Berry writes in “The Work of Local Culture,” “When people are no longer useful to one another, then the centripetal force of family and community fails, and people fall into dependence on exterior economies and organizations. … The local schools no longer serve the local community; they serve the government’s economy and the economy’s government. … Professionalism means more interest in salaries and less interest in what used to be known as disciplines. And so we arrive at the idea, endlessly reiterated in the news media, that education can be improved by bigger salaries for teachers — which may be true, but education cannot be improved … by bigger salaries alone.”
A dairy farmer with a shrinking herd of cows lacks the luxury of increasing his salary: economic limits constrain him — he cannot set the price of milk. A government that awards pay raises to teachers and superintendents even as the “herd” of students shrinks, while compressing the schools into a more centralized (and expensive) consolidation, is destroying its community at the source; consigning its children to CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations]. Schools close, bureaucracy grows. To avert a collapse of Vermont’s school system and economy, this “progression” must be reversed … for the children.
John Klar is an attorney, farmer and writer from Brookfield, and a candidate in the 2020 Republican primary for governor.