Town Meeting Day was a call to action on school funding

The defeat of school budgets in some of Vermont’s largest (and/or most notoriously liberal) cities should provide new incentive to reform efforts in the State House. Governor Shumlin and legislative leaders have already begun tackling the issue; I expect their efforts will accelerate starting today. This is likely to be the hot issue in the 2014 elections — not health care reform.

Especially striking were the “No” votes in Burlington and Montpelier. In both cities, the state property tax imposed massive increases on otherwise tight budgets. (Montpelier’s school board proposed a spending increase of 2%, but taxes would have gone up by 13%.) And in both cities, school budgets were rejected while municipal budgets and other spending measures passed easily.

Well, the Governor did all but invite this outcome when he placed the blame squarely on local school boards. In truth, the current funding system is kind of an echo chamber, with local decisions feeding into the statewide rate, and then the state tax imposing new burdens on local districts. (Shumllin also neglects to mention some cost- and revenue-shifting by the state that’s added to the tax burden.) At this point, we’re better off fixing it than pointing fingers.

I suspect that the dynamics of Town Meeting have limited the spread of any tax revolt. My local school budget was a lot like Montpelier’s: small spending increase but a big tax hike. Plenty of people were upset over rising taxes; but when you hear the whole thing explained by your neighbors on the school board, it’s a lot harder to turn them down. Still, although our budget passed easily, there was widespread acknowledgment that the current system is unsustainable.

People like Peter Shumlin and Shap Smith are smart enough to realize this.

There seems to be a growing consensus for system-wide consolidation; I expect that some sort of consolidation bill will pass during the 2014 session. If not, the Republicans would be smart to jump on the school funding issue and put health care reform on the back burner.

There’d be some hypocrisy in that, to be sure. As one former lawmaker pointed out to me, the current Act 60/68 school funding system was promoted by Governor Douglas and the House, which then had a Republican majority. As my source recalls, majority Democrats in the Senate didn’t much like the plan, but decided to go along because many communities saw an immediate tax cut.

So when people like Heidi Scheuermann and Patti Komline call for “Repeal and Replace,” don’t forget that it was Jim Douglas, Patron Saint of Vermont Republicans, who foisted this system on us.

(Wouldn’t it be nice if our political media occasionally made use of their archives to let us know the history of issues like this? Yes, it would. But they don’t.)  

4 thoughts on “Town Meeting Day was a call to action on school funding

  1. Act 60 was a Dean administration initiative, undertaken in a kinder gentler time as an unapologetic attempt at wealth redistribution.

    It certainly has its issues; particularly with regard to the complexity of the formulae, which some legislators find to be beyond their ken.  But it’s existence, like Act 250 goes to the core of what makes Vermont the most progressive state in the nation.

    Act 68 was a Douglas “claw-back,” belonging more to the renewed spirit of wealth-entitlement and plain old stinginess that seems to be the bizarre legacy of the Wall Street collapse.

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