Last week, the Vermont House approved a 4-cent increase in the statewide property tax, which forms the base upon which each town calculates its own tax rate. At the same time the House rejected a Republican measure to scrap the present education finance system in favor of an alternative yet to be designed.
Education reform has gained momentum this year because of rising taxes and also because of a generalized unease about the quality of education. Thus, reform is aiming at two targets: finance and governance. In both cases, the solutions have little to do with the perceived problems.
A 4-cent increase in the statewide property tax is not a giant increase. It raises the rate from 94 cents to 98 cents. Inflationary pressures alone — higher salaries and health care costs — would account for that kind of increase. Specific conditions in some towns have produced significant increases above the base amount. For example, if enrollment fell dramatically, the town would see a drop in the state’s share of education costs, leaving more to be raised by the town. The town could cut its budget in response to declining enrollment, and some have done that. But these budget pressures are not a function of the present system so much as they are of demographic changes that would affect any system.
Critics of the present system say costs are out of control because voters face little incentive to reject budgets. But results from town meeting show otherwise. In nearly three dozen school districts voters rejected school budgets this year. Voters remain the best check on school budget growth as they have shown year after year.
The most telling argument in favor of the present system is that after all these years critics have failed to advance a real alternative. There are vague suggestions that a new system would be developed if the present system were chucked. It is not a reassuring promise.
That isn’t to say that modifications to the present system are not in order, and the House’s actions showed the direction of the thinking of House members. Out of concern that some people with expensive homes but modest incomes were enjoying an outsized benefit from the income-sensitive provisions of the law, the House voted to reduce the maximum benefit from $8,000 to $6,000. It also raised the income limit below which people can be eligible for an income-sensitive calculation of their tax bills.
In addition, the House voted to phase out grants designed to assist small schools, which do not enjoy the economies of scale that large schools do. This action is in line with the feeling that maintaining numerous small schools is expensive to the state.
Since the passage of Act 60 in 1997, resistance to the new system has always come from the so-called “gold towns.” These were the property-rich towns that saw their taxes skyrocket because Act 60 had equalized the tax burden among the towns.
In fact, the system no longer affords relief to wealthy towns that choose to pass big school budgets. Even towns and cities that show restraint find they sometimes have a hard time persuading voters to approve school budgets. That is what happened in Rutland City this year, probably because even though the system equalizes school spending among the towns, residents in some towns experience greater economic hardship than others do.
Leading Republican legislators, such as Reps. Patti Komline and Heidi Scheuermann and the late Rick Hube, have been the most outspoken critics of the present finance system. The push to change governance of the schools is coming from a different direction.
The bill that would abolish hundreds of school boards around the state is coming from the House Education Committee and its chairwoman, Democrat Johannah Leddy Donovan of Burlington. It is supported by education professionals, including the state Education Board (except for one member) and numerous superintendents around the state.
The bill comes surrounded by glowing rhetoric about improving education by consolidating control in central districts governed by large central boards. But it is already drawing opposition from some districts that do not favor the elimination of school boards elected to govern the many small schools in the state’s many small towns.
The push for consolidation is a bureaucrat’s dream, and it has been embraced by lawmakers who believe they have been called upon to carry out some sort of bold action. It is not clear who is doing the calling apart from the bureaucrats.
Both of these reform movements seem to be distractions from the work of improving schools. Finance reform has already foundered. The abolition of school boards is still a possibility about which voters ought to beware.