Pelham: It's OK to vote 'No' on school budgets

by Tom Pelham In February 1997, Vermont’s Supreme Court found “the current system for funding public education in Vermont, with its substantial dependence on local property taxes and resultant wide disparities in revenues available to local school districts” is in violation of the Vermont Constitution. 

In response, in June 1997, the Vermont Legislature and Governor enacted the Equal Educational Opportunity Act—Act 60— a Vermont law intended to achieve a fair balance of educational spending across school districts independent of the degree of prosperity within each district. Act 60 was followed by Acts 68 and 130, which addressed some imbalances caused by Act 60.  

Acts 68 and 130, established a system to pool the state's educational budgetary requirements from across jurisdictions and pay for them, in part, with pooled statewide property taxes. 

Yet, despite these structural changes (or maybe because of them), school budgets for the coming fiscal year are in chaos. VT Digger reports that “State economists, using the latest available school budget projections, have predicted that education spending could increase almost 15% next year. As a result, the latest modeling indicates the average Vermonter could expect education property tax bills to increase 20%”. 

“School officials say a variety of factors have compounded soaring budgets this year, from disappearing federal dollars, increasing health care costs, school construction needs, teacher salaries, special education costs and more.”

It does appear that since the passage of Act 60, that school boards and legislators have allowed themselves to become overwhelmed by the amount of school budgets and the school budget approval process. Consider these underlying facts:

  • The National Center for Education Statistics reports that Vermont’s enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools has dropped by 18,395 students, or 18%, from 102,049 in 2000 to 83,654 in 2022. 
  • Yet, despite the above significant drop in school enrollments, the actuarial analyses of the Vermont State Teachers’ Retirement System for fiscal 2000 and 2023 indicate the number of active teachers in Vermont’s schools has remained essentially flat at 10,389 in FY 2000 and 10,618 in FY 2023. 
  • Further, the National Education Association Rankings of States profiles Vermont as having the lowest ratio of enrolled students per teacher at 10.2 as compared to the national average of 15.3. Further, the Education Data Initiative profiles Vermont as spending the second highest amount per pupil on k-12 education at $24,666. The EDI profiles the national average at $19,380. 
  • Regarding taxpayer burdens, the Legislature’s “FY 2000 Fiscal Facts” profiles the Education Fund as providing $420.2 million in revenues toward k-12 education appropriations. For the current fiscal year 2023, the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office reports that amount has increased to $1.92 billion.

The passage of Act 60 and its amendments has been embraced by most Vermonters. Equitable access to educational resources across all Vermont communities is both the law and the right public policy. 

However, one casualty of these reforms has been the erosion of the long-standing connection enjoyed by Vermonters relative to the passage of local school budgets. 

In today’s world of “equalized pupils”, “income sensitivity”, “pupil weights relative to economic and language differences”, “5% spending caps” among many other mandates established by the legislature, it’s hard if not impossible for most everyday Vermonters to understand the budget they are being asked to support. 

Given the strong influence of special interest advocates, school budgets have been substantially hijacked over the years and are now indecipherable and unaffordable for most Vermonters. 

As noted above, Vermonters already spend generously on their public education system. A 20% increase is unreasonable and intolerable. Given the amount Vermonters already spend on k-12 education, sending budgets back to school boards and the legislature to craft and enact fiscal reforms is the responsible course.  It’s OK for Vermonters to vote no on school budgets and deliver the message that the current entangled and costly system is not OK.  

 This commentary is by Tom Pelham of Berlin, who was finance commissioner in the Dean administration and tax commissioner in the Douglas administration and served on the Appropriations Committee in the Vermont House as an Independent