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Democratic lawmakers have a plan to reduce ed spending. Gov. Phil Scott says it's 'the right move'

A man in a suit speaks at a podium. A sign language interpreter stands next to him.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
During Gov. Phil Scott's budget address on Jan. 23, he nodded to some of his ideas to contain education costs, such as minimum classroom sizes, and noted that they were rejected by the Legislature in the past.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott says he supports a plan from Democratic lawmakers that would postpone school budget votes this year in the hopes of reducing education spending.

Property tax rates are currently projected to jump by more than 20% next year due to unexpectedly high budget proposals from local school districts. That high spending is due in part to a 2-year-old law that unintentionally created an opportunity for districts to spend big in 2024 without having the full tax consequences passed on to local voters.

Democrats want to mitigate the problem by amending the law, and postponing school budget votes so that local boards have time to revise their budgets downward. Scott said during his weekly media briefing Wednesday that he thinks the legislation is “the right move.”

“Their approach right now to eliminate the 5% cap provision and extending the voting on school budgets for a month of whatever period of time it ends up being is the right move,” he said.

That 5% cap Scott referenced is a provision in a 2022 law, called Act 127, which was designed to increase spending in low-income districts with higher-needs students, and tamp down per-pupil costs in more affluent communities.

More from Vermont Public: Capitol Recap: Lawmakers retooled Vermont’s school funding law. Now, no one is happy

The statute advanced that goal by making some revisions to the state’s education funding formula: Lower-income districts would be able to spend more money without seeing a commensurate spike in local tax rates; more affluent districts, meanwhile, would experience the opposite effect.

In order to ease richer districts into the new framework, lawmakers included a provision that caps property tax rate increases for homeowners during the initial phase-in. That cap, however, has had the effect of encouraging all districts to maximize spending during the next fiscal year, so they can reap the benefits of a provision that effectively insulates voters from the full tax rate implications of local school spending decisions.

Though Scott said he supports legislation to eliminate that cap, he said he doesn’t think it’ll address structural issues fueling the rise in education spending.

“And we have to work together to find a way to reduce the amount of spending for our schools. And it’s going to be tough, tough conversations, no doubt,” he said.

Scott said he favors proposals he’s presented to lawmakers in the past, including statutory caps on school budget increases in the future, and new limits on staff-to-student ratios in schools. But he said that since lawmakers rejected those proposals in the past, and have supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, he’ll defer to them on how best to proceed now.

“They hold all the cards, the Legislature does. They can do anything they want. They don’t need me one way or the other … and they’ve proven that,” Scott said. “I’ve said we’ll play a role. We are willing to be part of the solution. We’re willing to work with you. But there has to be a desire for that. Otherwise, it’s in their hands.”

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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