School budgets sail on Town Meeting Day, with more spending driven by students' mental health needs
Voters across Vermont Tuesday mostly said yes to local school budget proposals. Those budget proposals will drive statewide education spending north of $2 billion next year, and send property tax bills up by nearly 8% on average, if lawmakers don’t take measures to temper the increase.
Overall education spending in Vermont is now set to rise by 7.7% next year — the largest year-over-year increase in five years.
Find more results on Vermont Public's Town Meeting Day 2023 liveblog.
Voters by and large, however, were supportive of local spending plans: Of the 109 school budget votes to date, all but two had passed as of Wednesday afternoon. Five districts have yet to report vote results, and another 12 districts will hold their votes between now and May 20.
“I mean, the fact that we only have two budgets that were defeated I think says a lot of about the community support for schools and what schools are doing and how much schools are carrying,” said Peter Burrows, superintendent of the Addison Central School District.
What schools are “carrying,” according to a half dozen education officials interviewed by Vermont Public on Wednesday, include new costs for mental health supports for students struggling to recover from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“My goal is always to make sure when students come to school, they feel safe and they are ready to learn. And that’s one of the biggest challenges that we have right now."Amy Minor, superintendent at Colchester School District
Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools won support from voters Tuesday for a fiscal year 2024 budget that’s up by 6.5% over this year’s spending plan. District Superintendent Libby Bonesteel said the bulk of that increase is to address a rise in chronic absenteeism and a deterioration in students’ social and emotional wellbeing.
“Our social emotional learning and mental health costs are skyrocketing,” Bonesteel said.
When Bonesteel started in the position five years ago, she said the district spent about $750,000 annually on mental health supports. That figure has since risen to nearly $3 million a year, and next year’s budget includes funding for two teachers that will be dedicated exclusively to helping students with special learning plans related to their social and emotional development.
“Every single one of us are essentially making our own mental health therapeutic environment for kids in-house, because we don’t have any place for kids to go, or for that kind of expertise to be given to kids,” she said.
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At Colchester School District, voters OKed a spending plan that funds a new school counselor and psychologist. Superintendent Amy Minor said she doesn’t anticipate the need for mental health services in schools going away anytime soon.
“I think society is changing — the needs that we’re seeing families and students struggle with,” she said. “My goal is always to make sure when students come to school, they feel safe, and they are ready to learn. And that’s one of the biggest challenges that we have right now, is … some of our students are coming to school and they’re not ready to learn, and so they need some extra mental health support services attention during their school day, so that we help regulate those students so they can go back to class and focus on the academic task that’s at hand.”
Schools are simultaneously getting hit with the same inflationary pressures affecting other sectors of the economy.
“You know, the price of eggs has increased, so has the price of fuel and electricity and paper and pencils,” said Jen Botzojorns, superintendent of the Kingdom East School District in Orleans County. “And those are small pieces, but economically, inflation has made increases in all of our budget across the line.”
Those inflationary pressures will soon translate into higher salaries and benefits for teachers and other school staff as districts negotiate compensation packages designed to slow the recent exodus from the education profession.
The overall increase in education spending next year would, without legislative intervention, translate into a nearly 8% increase in the average tax bill paid by property owners in the state. But a projected $90 million surplus in this year’s education fund will likely keep tax increases well below that figure.
Brattleboro Rep. Emilie Kornhesier, chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, said lawmakers are inclined to use that surplus to offset property tax increases next year and beyond.
“I think everyone on the committee agrees that some of that should be used to buffer some of the effects of this pretty large increase on spending in education,” Kornheiser said.
She said her committee is contemplating a “tax stabilization reserve” that would use this year’s surplus as a property tax insulator for at least the next couple years, given a projected decline in other education fund revenues — such as sales and rooms and meals taxes.
“And so want to make sure, given that we doubt that spending on education is going to go down next year, we should be ready for that with a little bit of stabilizing force,” Kornheiser said.
“You know, the price of eggs has increased, so has the price of fuel and electricity and paper and pencils. And those are small pieces, but economically, inflation has made increases in all of our budget across the line.”Jen Botzojorns, superintendent of the Kingdom East School District in Orleans County
Burrows with the Addison Central School District also doubts that spending on education will go down in the future. And he said the pandemic-era federal supports that have allowed districts to address student needs without shocking property taxpayers are about to disappear.
“As those funds go away, the needs are not going to go away,” Burrows said.
He said the tension between fully funding appropriate learning environments for kids, and keeping tax bills in line with what Vermonters are willing and able to pay, will require leadership from Montpelier.
“I think we have a lot of data to show that just leaving everything to local voters to figure out is poor governance, and frankly shows a lack of care for the students in our schools,” he said.
Botzojorns said whatever policies the state pursues will have to address the swirl of forces the system is contending with.
“We see a decline in student population, an increase in the aging population, a decrease in federal funds and an increase in mental health needs projected forward,” she said.
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Alburgh and Barre Unified Union were the only school districts to see their budgets defeated Tuesday, but Barre’s went down because residents were concerned that the 1.5% proposed spending increase would’ve required draconian cuts, such as the elimination of athletics for grades K-8.
“The Barre schools take this definitive ‘no’ vote as a clear sign of support for our schools from our community,” Barre Superintendent Chris Hennessy said. “It sounds bizarre and backwards, but that is very evident.”
Hennessy said his administration already has an alternative spending plan ready for review by the school board.
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