Thursday December 18, 2014
As the legislative session drew to a close in the spring of 2014, one major unresolved financial issue seemed to dwarf the myriad others sure to make it back on the State House docket for 2015: how to fund education in Vermont at a cost taxpayers can afford. This topic became a particular concern after the South Burlington School District’s FY 15 budget passed by only a small margin and a near record number of school budgets throughout the state failed. As a result of this, both the city and school district were spurred to action. In early September of this year the council approved a resolution, drafted by the Town Manager of Dorset, Rob Giotti, that has since been accepted by over thirty municipalities. In response, at the December 15 council meeting, the school board had the opportunity to present their own more comprehensive resolution, which they developed to present to legislators.
Although the actions proposed by each resolution differ, their ultimate goal is the same: provide property tax relief to taxpayers. The city’s resolution suggested that a sustainable education future included creating a more diverse education funding system, sharing the costs equitably between all tax resources (income, sales, meals and rooms, and property taxes), and simplifying the education funding system so that it can be understood by the average taxpayer. In order to allow the legislature time to make the necessary funding reforms, the resolution proposed capping education property tax rates at FY15 levels for the next two years.
However, the school board was not consulted prior to the council passing the resolution, and the board voiced their concern at the September 15 steering committee meeting. These concerns were discussed in greater detail at subsequent school board meetings and a decision was made to charge board member Martin LaLonde with drafting a more comprehensive resolution to present to the council as well as South Burlington’s legislators, that outlined school specific issues in greater detail. After reviewing several drafts and offering their input, the board reached consensus on the resolution at the December 5 board meeting and agreed to have it printed and distributed.
The council had their first look at the board’s resolution when Martin LaLonde and Dan Fleming presented it at the December 15 council meeting. LaLonde’s draft resolution, which spans twelve pages, covers issues on both the cost and revenue side of the funding issue. LaLonde hit the high points of the resolution in his presentation. “We want to maintain what we have (in terms of a high quality education in South Burlington) and improve upon it,” LaLonde said.
LaLonde touched on issues related to collective bargaining as well as the board’s opposition to binding arbitration because inevitably “the outcomes are less democratic,” LaLonde said. The cost of healthcare was also noted and the resolution reads that teachers should not be exempted from changes to the healthcare system. Act 129, where resources no longer follow non-resident students who wish to attend South Burlington schools also creates an undue burden on the district budget. Phasing out small school grants that encourage schools to stay small, was also suggested. “Consolidation should be encouraged,” LaLonde said.
LaLonde also called for more appropriate uses of the Education Fund. The Education Fund was originally to be used to “make payments to school districts and supervisory unions for the support of education,” and for certain other costs directly associated with the support of education in those districts and supervisory unions. The legislature has since added draws from the Ed Fund that do not go to districts such as, in FY 15, $3.8 million went from the Ed Fund to fund the Community High School of Vermont which is run by the Department of Corrections, and $5.8 million being used to fund adult education, as well as funding retired teachers’ healthcare. LaLonde noted that the state’s decision to fund these entities through the Ed Fund increases the property taxes that local boards must request of taxpayers for their budgets.
Councilor John Simson asked LaLonde and Fleming where their resolution would go from here. Fleming said that the board will present it to their legislators at the legislative breakfast December 17 and to the School Boards Association.
Meaghan Emery expressed concern over a couple of the items related to teachers, particularly staff to student ratios and said while she was happy with the resolution overall, that ”teaching is a vocation and doesn’t operate under typical supply and demand...it can hurt morale if there is competition.”
LaLonde said, “As a school board member, we’re often put in an adversarial role...we have to look at these things more broadly, (not solely from a teachers perspective) and ask what does the community want?”
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent