MONTPELIER, Vt. - On a windy Thursday in St. Johnsbury, voters headed to the polls for a second shot at the school budget. It was cut by $180,000 since the first try on Town Meeting Day.
The budget failed this time too, a disappointing result for superintendent Ranny Bledsoe.
“A number of people have said this ‘we just have to vote against the budget because we don't like taxes going up’,” Bledsoe said.
About two thirds of funding for Vermont schools comes from your property taxes. What you pay for property taxes is not determined by how big your school district budget is but the amount spent on each student at the school. It’s known as per pupil spending.
“The higher your per pupil spending the higher your tax rate,” Vermont Agency of Education CFO Bill Talbott said.
Talbot’s numbers show that per pupil spending is rapidly rising. The average amount spent on a single student in Vermont has increased almost $2,000 over the past five years topping off $13,547 this school year.
New York's most recent data from 2012, shows a much higher number, $20,906 per student.
New Hampshire’s data is more in line with Vermont with per pupil costs at $13,459.
Talbott says Vermont’s per pupil spending problem is two-fold.
“In Vermont we've been losing kids since 1997 yet the spending continues to go up,” Talbott said.
So what do your tax dollars pay for? That money goes to music, food, books, supplies, technology and all the tools your students need to succeed. There's one expense bigger than anything else.
“80% of our costs are our staffing. (That’s) Salary and benefits,” Talbott said.
That’s $1.1 billion going mostly to the 18,400 teachers across the state. They’re the center piece of any classroom and superintendents we spoke to say their last resort would be to reduce staff pay or benefits.
Teacher pay in Vermont ranks in the middle of the pack compared to the rest of the country.
“I do think we would lose really talented staff if we freeze salaries,” Bledsoe said.
Now lawmakers in Montpelier are seeking solutions to curb per pupil spending.
“By expanding districts we also expand the tax base,” State Representative and House Committee on Education Chair Johannah Donovan said.
Donovan is putting her support behind a bill to end school districts as we know them. There are 273 in Vermont right now. This bill would consolidate them into roughly 50 “expanded districts” by 2020.
“Our delivery system hasn't been changed in over a century. So this is a big change,” Donovan said.
A study completed in 2010 compared the state's supervisory unions with multiple school districts to supervisory unions with one school district, which resemble what school consolidation would look like.
Per pupil spending at the single districts was an average of $472 lower than the multi-districts.
The study shows if the multi-district unions could save this much that adds up to $32 million per year.
But for Rep. Donovan, the idea of consolidating is about students not savings.
“We can just offer we think more flexibility and again greater student learning opportunities,” Donovan said,
The idea is smaller schools would be able to share resources and teachers with other schools in their expanded district.
Some worry it could force small schools to close. It would also eliminate a majority of school board position leading to some concern that communities would have less control over *their school's budget.
“Do you feel that this driven by taxes, by dollars spent or by the kids we're trying to educate?” Reporter David Hodges asked.
“I think it's probably all of those. I mean the people who are talking about it seriously always bring up the educational offerings first,” Bill Talbott said.
But in 35 Vermont towns the biggest issue was taxes. More than 200 towns did pass their budget on the first try but it's clear, how much we spend on our students is taking center stage from the school board to the statehouse.
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