Between a rock and a hard place
It's difficult not to feel sympathy for the Manchester School Board as they grapple with the spending cap limits imposed by Act 46, the new education governance overhaul legislation passed by lawmakers last spring. Formally known as the "allowable growth percentage," the spending caps were designed to curb increases in education spending in the short term while school district and supervisory union consolidation worked over the long term to bring better efficiencies and better targeted spending. They were a response to the perception that voters were at long last feeling that the property tax rates they were being asked to finance had finally reached a tipping point. The only surprise here is that it took this long to reach this crossroads, and reflect, we like to think, an understanding of the important role education and schools play held by residents and voters.
In the abstract, the caps make sense. They are based on a sliding scale determined by a school district's past spending history — a district that had a track record of high per-pupil spending would not have as much leeway as a district which had spent less. That point might very well trigger a lawsuit by the Vermont chapter of the ACLU in coming weeks or months, but that is a story for another day.
Right here and now, Manchester, like more than 100 other school districts across the state, are on the wrong end of the spending caps' pointed spear. The reasons for that are multi-faceted, and fingers can be pointed in many directions. Some of them have to do with state and federal mandates that weren't fully funded. Some of them may be more local in origin. Some will no doubt look back to the passage of Act 60 nearly 20 years ago, which took school budgets out of the hands of local voters at town meetings and substituted a fuzzy and hard-to-understand formula that, in any event, wasn't something local taxpayers controlled anymore. Act 60, however, solved a huge problem that plagued education in Vermont in the 1990s — the extremes of inequities in different school districts whose property values ranged widely and whose consequences were directly felt in what schools could offer. It's unfortunate that in solving that problem, it created another one in a lack of financial accountability.
Fast forward to 2015, and the legislature came up with what we continue to believe is a major step in the right direction with Act 46. Little local schools may have a charming history, and may have served the state well in their day, but that day is passed. Simply put, they are too expensive to operate and can't offer the range of courses larger, more centralized schools can, critical in this information age where good jobs and a strong economy — to say nothing of an informed citizenry — are closely linked to a strong educational infrastructure.
In fact, the conundrum the Manchester school board now finds itself in — needing to slash about $400,000 in spending from its budget — can be seen as vindication of Act 46, a controversial piece of legislation that has had no shortage of critics. When you have a school district enrollment that has declined significantly to the extent it needs the "phantom student" circuit breaker to keep tax rates from being raised further, that's a red flag. The way around that is to explore consolidations and partnerships with other schools and school districts. And that's not just a middle or elementary school problem. One of the great missing pieces in the northshire at least, is a solid vocational education program for kids who aren't college-oriented. It could be set up in an existing school which is under-enrolled, and unlikely to ever see its old enrollment glory days return, because youngsters of family formation age are leaving the state to find jobs elsewhere. That is part of the cycle, but again, a topic for another day. Act 46 might help make room for such a vocational program, while consolidating other academic programs at fewer numbers of schools, taught by a fewer number of teachers.
But back to the here and now and the spending caps. It's tempting to suggest the legislature simply suspend the caps, or tweak them in some way to ease the transition for school board this year as they adjust to the new limits on spending that didn't exist a year ago. That undermines the cost savings the caps were designed to produce. A full blown suspension of the caps, coupled with a stern proviso that next year, no matter what, the caps will be imposed, and school boards, now that you're on notice, need to plan accordingly, seems reasonable on one level. But that could have the perverse effect of encouraging school boards to spend more heavily than they might have, in order to start from a higher baseline next year. Urging boards to think more broadly beyond the needs of their individual districts is unlikely to gain much traction, and school directors might well argue, justifiably, that their job is to look out for their own district.
What to do? How about leaving the caps in place, but any spending beyond the penalty line must be paid for strictly from local funds? Thus, if a certain program is deemed too desirable to cut, but is one eyed as possibly expendable to get under the penalty bar, could that be financed strictly from local funds, throwing the question back into the hands of the community or school district to determine just how vital it is?
Trying to thread the needle between the hammer of the spending caps and the anvil of necessary spending to maintain standards and curricula isn't easy, but the bottom line is that on a statewide basis, educational spending must be brought under better control. We can't keep spending more and more money on fewer and fewer students.
Another suggestion — since a 7.9 percent health insurance increase has been frequently cited as a big cost driver, then it's time for the teacher's union to be part of the Vermont Health Connect system, rather than being exempted as they currently are. We realize there were factors that allowed them to be grandfathered out of it in the initial phase, but after next year, that should not be the case, if the insurance offered via the state exchange would save money.
Hopefully, one byproduct of this will be to boost the turnout at the school district's portion of town meeting, usually a sleepy affair. If half as many voters went to the school district town meeting as went to the municipal one, where every dollar of a much smaller budget gets to be scrutinized to a sometimes painful degree, then we can thank Act 46 for focusing attention on the far larger, and now more problematic, school district budget.
Taxpayers do need the relief. The state is facing an affordability crisis. We also need a strong educational system. We need to take a hard look at where the money is being spent, and if the same amount of money could be more effectively spent. That's where, down the road, the consolidation benefits of Act 46 may come into sharper focus. But it's up to voters. The place to start is at the school district town meeting.
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