MONTPELIER — Voters in 11 school districts rejected school budgets out of a total of 235 budget votes on Town Meeting Day.
Education experts are reluctant to call that new low a trend, but it's a significant reduction in the number of school budgets that have been rejected over the past few years.
In 2014, voters sent a clear message to Montpelier that they were fed up with paying so much for education by rejecting 37 school budgets. Last year, as lawmakers scrambled to find a way to contain costs, that number was nearly halved when voters defeated 20 school budgets. On Tuesday, after the Act 46 school district consolidation law, which included new school spending thresholds, the number of budgets rejected by voters was halved again.
Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association said he doesn't see a pattern emerging. "Prior to 2013 there were few defeats," Francis said. "Every year is different, there are numerous factors that come into play often at the local level."
But Rep. David Sharpe, chair of the House Committee on Education, says communities recognize that the Legislature's cost containment measures are working. The allowable growth thresholds and one time use of rainy day money at the state and school district level have held costs down, he said.
"Local school boards worked hard to provide high quality education to our children within the growth guidelines provided by state legislation," Sharpe said.
The thresholds, or allowable growth percentage, gave each school district a number between 0 percent and 5 percent that they could increase education spending. The objective was to keep statewide education spending increases to 2 percent. At the beginning of the legislative session, lawmakers increased every school district's allowable growth rate by 0.9 percentage points to help cover an unexpected 8 percent increase in health care costs. Once a school budget crosses the threshold they pay a tax penalty on every additional dollar. The penalty was dropped for school districts that couldn't stay under the allowable growth rate but spent $14,095 or less per pupil. Fines were also reduced from a dollar-for-dollar to 40 cents for every dollar over the limit.
School districts were determined to avoid tax penalties and many used rainy day funds to stay under the thresholds.
"I know education spending was up less than in prior years because of school districts utilizing reserves at the local level and also in response to the allowable growth thresholds," Francis said.
Twenty-three school districts exceeded the allowable growth threshold and will be fined for excess spending, according to Brad James', finance manager at the Agency of Education initial calculations. Districts that exceed threshold are fined 40 percent for each additional dollar spent over the limit.
St. Albans Town was among the towns that went over the threshold and was the only town where voters defeated the budget. St. Albans Town voted 888 to 825 against raising $11 million for schools, the $13,237 per pupil price tag would have amounted to a 3.79 percent hike in school spending.
The other 10 towns that rejected school budgets, include: Alburgh, Benson, Brownington, Eden, Fairhaven, Holland, Isle La Motte, Newport City, Readsboro and Roxbury.
A majority of Roxbury voters didn't seem to like the $17,033 per pupil cost which was an 18.6 percent higher than last year. In actual dollars, the budget went up $180,000 because of an increase in tuition students, an 8 percent increase in health care premiums and previously negotiated salary raises. "We did not take the increase lightly. We deliberated for four months, but our school is so small and there is no fat to trim out of our budget," said Jon Guiffre, chair of the school board.
Roxbury operates an elementary school with 3.5 teachers and tuitions grades 7-12. Most of the increase, $112,000, is tuition for eight new secondary students. "The only increase we added [for which they had control] was a net increase of $11,000 to account for 20 kids that have come to our school and we are understaffed," he said. "There is nothing to trim, and we can't cut teachers."
Roxbury operates on a bare bones budget, according to Guiffre. Act 46 requires school districts to present the budget warning language in a specific way and he believes it caused voters to fixate on the $17,033 per pupil number which he called a red herring.
"It is a division problem," he said. Education spending per equalized pupil is an "artificial" number because it is being divided by an amount that does not equal the number of bodies in the building. "It is being divided by a number that is relatively artificial – it is the number we compare across the state, district-to-district but it doesn't tell the whole story by any stretch of the imagination."
Only 20 or so people showed up at Roxbury school board's informational meeting. Guiffre hopes that all 266 people who voted down the budget will be at the next meeting. "I want them to clearly understand where our budget is coming from and its particular impact on their actual dollars."
Twenty more towns will vote on school budgets this spring.