Indeed, some school districts across the state are increasing their spending this year a great deal. At the same time though, many other districts are putting forth budgets with reasonable increases, or even decreases in some cases, yet the property taxes in their districts are expected to increase significantly.
Unfortunately, this is not a surprise to anybody in Montpelier. Vermonters may recall the debate last year as the General Assembly raised the statewide property tax rates by 5 cents for residential property owners and 6 cents on non-residentail property owners. At that time, it was very clear to all legislators and Governor Peter Shumlin that we would be facing similar tax increases this year. Along with some of my colleagues, I argued strenuously that Vermonters could not face that one-two punch; that we needed to completely reform the system in order to provide the highest quality education possible at a price Vermonters could afford.
Warning after warning went ignored, though, and now Vermonters are facing another year of significant property tax increases. Even worse, while we have yet to address the underlying problems in any meaningful way, the Governor and legislative leadership blame our local school boards and criticize our local voters for supporting their schools. The mantra from them has been if we keep budgets down, taxes won't increase. Well Mr. Governor, tell that to the people of Underhill and Bolton, where school budgets are actually going down, yet their property taxes are expected to rise 14 percent and 11 percent respectively; and to Montpelier, where the budget is increasing by 2.3 percent but property taxes by 13 percent; and to countless communities all over this state.
The fact is Act 60/68 is broken and beyond repair. It is a system so convoluted and complicated that next to nobody understands it, and it is completely unsustainable, as is clear with the suffocating property tax increases. Montpelier must recognize this, and address it. After all, we put this system into place, and we are abdicating our responsibility if we don't take action.
Our action, however, must be comprehensive. We cannot address the funding system without addressing our education delivery and structure. Vermonters continue to wonder if our school.s are able to provide the highest quality education for the knowledge-based global economy of the 21st Century. Doing better with fewer resources requires that we use our educational dollars more wisely, facilitate the sharing of resources between schools more efficiently and effectively, and re-think our educational delivery.
This effort must focus on expanding educational opportunities and improving outcomes; reconnecting taxpayers to budgets voted upon and money spent; reconnecting taxpayers to the outcomes achieved; and ensuring substantially equal educational opportunity - all within a more equitable and fair, less complex, sustainable funding system.
For six years, I have had a proposal on the table that does just that. It replaces the 63 Supervisory Unions with 15 or 16 Education Districts (ED), each with a District Board whose primary responsibility is to develop an ED-wide budget to support the schools within it. Of course, local school boards would remain and focus on educational quality and programs offered.
Education Districts would be responsible for all ED services, purchasing, transportation, and personnel. And, in an effort to provide more and better opportunities, students would have the option to attend any elementary or secondary school within their ED, and be able to be tuitioned to schools in other EDs. This would create a marketplace for our local schools, and allow for our schools to become beacons of high quality.
In order for this kind of transformation to be successful, however, we must realign the tax structure with the education structure.
To do this and return local control, all property taxes for education would be raised within the EDs and remain within the EDs. The current non-property tax revenues would continue to go into the Education Fund to support categorical aid and ensure substantially equal educational opportunity. For those who doubt our ability to comply with the Brigham decision, I argue that if we can equalize over 250 school districts, we should certainly be able to equalize 15 districts.
Vermonters are clamoring for change. It is time for Montpelier to seize on this opportunity, and create a system that increases local control, expands opportunities for our children, and improves the quality of our education.
And, to do it all at a cost we can afford.
Rep. Heidi E. Scheuermann is a Vermont State Representative residing in Stowe.