School Budget Votes - March 14, 2024

The House Education Committee hosted school officials on Thursday to hear their feedback from budget votes last week. The House Ways & Means Committee listened in for added context in their own discussions.

Ashley Woods (Chair, Harwood Unified Union School District Board) was first up, commenting that “since our budget failed last week, we are hearing two common themes from our community members. That the ‘no’ vote was cast as a protest to send a message to our legislatures that they need to fix the school funding formula. We are also hearing that the school board needs to ‘reduce staff’ or close schools to reduce our taxes.” She added that, “mostly we are hearing from people desperate about their tax increases.”

As a board they know that there are a number of “difficult years” ahead of them. Their concern is that if they cut too much too soon, we will not be able to meet their legal obligations to students. She re-enforced that their board does not set tax rates or determine how the CLA impacts their tax rates. She argued that all they can control is “the increase to our budget.” She recognizes that it’s important that they pass a budget that their community can afford but also important to propose a budget that can adequately fund their classrooms and the needs of their students.

See her full written comments.

The second to testify was Brooke Olsen-Farrell (Superintendent, Slate Valley Unified Union School District). She noted that their budget failed by a margin of 464 vote, the “largest margin ever recorded for our district.” This marks our fourth budget failure in the past five years, she shared. The failed budget aimed to address “critical needs and enhance the overall educational experience for our students,” she claimed. According to Act 127, their district is classified as “advantaged”. She believes they are one of the lowest-spending districts in the state, and also one of the most impoverished. Their community seems to pride itself on being at the bottom in terms of spending statewide and thus they “always aim at being fiscally responsible and conservative.”

“Our education spending per equalized pupil is slated to be $11,321; this is the budget that failed. The district directly to our north Addison Central passed a budget with spending of $16,099. This is illustrative of the huge inequities within our current state system,” she argued.

See her full comments.

Meghan Metzler (Chair, Champlain Valley School District Board) shared that her district lost 17% of their tax capacity under Act 127 which was “not fully offset by the $.17 discount we received for this year under H.850 and the discount will diminish over time.”

NOTE: The point of H.850 wasn’t to subsidize school district spending. It was to provide an off-ramp.

She noted that this was “the first time a school budget has failed since we consolidated,” and it failed by a margin of approximately 22%. She argued that a “level-service budget” would have resulted in some towns seeing a 30% increase in property taxes. Her board was put in the position of having to explain this very complicated and opaque process to voters and why for “exactly the same service as well as some facilities needs,” the cost to you as a taxpayer is going up 30%.”

She stated that “at the local level, we are trying to lead our community, but we need clear action from you. As of Monday, nearly 40% of weighted pupils in the state of Vermont had a failed budget, that’s a different way to look at the 30 budgets that failed. The 62 passed budgets reflect roughly the same number of weighted students as the 30 that failed. This is a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution, and there is only so much we can do at the local board level.”

Read her full written statement.

She was followed by Flor Diaz-Smith (Chair, Washington Central Unified Union School District Board) who admitted as the recent days have been very busy and she did not have fully prepared testimony. They are a higher spending district to begin with and the 16% local education spending increase proposed in their budget lost by 524 votes. Her points mostly reflected on different options available to the legislature and whether it “promotes achievement.” She also questioned if varies education spending categories belonged in the Education Fund or the General Fund. She was also interested in the accountability of public dollars.

NOTE: So are we!

Lynn Cota (Superintendent, Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union) was next up. She pointed out that where the yield will land will remain a “mystery to all of us until it is set by the Legislature at the end of the session.”

NOTE: Not really true. Unless the Legislature chooses to intervene with a new revenue source. It will largely be dependent upon what districts pass for budgets. We’ve got a pretty decent idea at this point what that will look like.

She noted that for the first time ever, they are educating their boards on the potential for them to cut budgets to the $1.00 floor, below which further cuts can't lower their district tax rates. In theory, if the boards cut too deeply they’ll be eliminating resources without any further impact on the district tax rate. She argued that they would “just be sending that money back to the state education fund.”

She cautioned that “it is not uncommon to have three or fewer, or even zero candidates for open positions. Our reality is that 6% of our teachers are on emergency licenses and 24% of our teachers are provisionally licensed.” She shared that it is not uncommon for them to hire people who have a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field and have them learn how to be a teacher while they are teaching. They employ instructional coaches who support these new educators and “coach them into the teaching role while they earn their certification.”

She also felt “compelled to point out that our schools are contending with unprecedented levels of students with complex mental health challenges while we are seeing an extraordinary scarcity of resources from our local mental health and social services partners.” She believes that Vermont’s Education Funding system is disguising the true cost of mental health, social services, and other costs in our state. “Out of necessity,” school systems are building those resources into our public schools.

See her full written remarks.

Last up was Debbie Singiser (Chair, Barstow Unified Union School District Board), she also serves Director of Board Services at the VSBA. She shared that their $6.3M budget was defeated by four votes. Considering we had “never come close to a failed budget in at least 10 years,” she claimed that any defeat was significant for her district. In speaking with their Municipal Clerks, they both said there was “a significantly higher than usual voter turnout this year.”

Singiser called their budget a “level-service” budget with “no proposed program changes. Despite this, our budget increased by 12%, due to cost of living increases for salaries, rising health care costs, increased high school tuition costs, and inflationary pressures.” She also blamed the “extensive media coverage… grossly oversimplified and generalized messages frightened many of our voters… [forcing them] to decide between the needs of the district and their own personal financial situation.”

See her full written comments.

Other education officials pointed to PCB testing, staffing, unfunded mandates, and other challenges they are facing.

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