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Nearly a third of all school budgets fail on Town Meeting Day

People stand near white voting booths with red edges and an image of the American flag with the word vote
Mike Dougherty
Vermont Public
Montpelier residents voted down their school budget this year — alongside nearly a third of all districts who voted on Tuesday across Vermont.

School officials were bracing for a difficult Town Meeting Day – and they were right to.

A little over 30% of all school budgets were rejected on Tuesday, according to unofficial results compiled by the Vermont Superintendents and School Boards' associations. Twenty-nine budgets failed out of 93. That's a stunning number of defeats in a state where voters typically approve school budgets by large margins. For comparison, over the last decade, the worst year for school budgets was in 2014, when 14% of budgets failed on Town Meeting Day.

"We have formidable challenges — they’re real challenges — and they need to be well understood by local officials and state officials alike,” Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said in an interview. “And what's at stake is having a high quality, vibrant and effective education system into the future.”

Proposed prek-12 spending statewide increased by well over $200 million this year, and Vermonters at the ballot box wrestled with whether they could bear the double-digit property tax increases necessary to support their local schools.

In Elmore, for example, where the school budget ultimately failed, Eddie Adams said outside the polls on Tuesday that he was shocked when he saw what the proposed school budget would do to his property tax bill.

He said he found himself weighing the health of his household finances against the interests of his 11-year-old son.

“I want him to have the best education,” Adams said. “But in the same sense, I want to be able to pay my property taxes as well.”

Francis, alongside Sue Ceglowski, who helms the school boards’ association, said Wednesday it was clear that the rising cost of education — and taxpayers’ reactions — calls for reform. But they also urged decision-makers not to make changes without understanding the complex reasons why costs are increasing.

“There's no simple solution,” Ceglowski said. “It's going to take state level leadership and also work by local leaders to figure out how to address these challenges.”

Key cost drivers included soaring health insurance premiums — which alone account for an estimated $42 million increase in spending — more generous salaries and benefits, inflation, special education, and the retreat of federal pandemic-era aid.

Lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott also worried that a property tax cap baked into Act 127, a recent retooling of Vermont’s education finance formula, had unintentionally encouraged school districts to maximize spending this year. And so with fewer than two weeks to go before Town Meeting Day, lawmakers passed, and Scott signed, a bill to eliminate that tax break and give school districts extra time to postpone their budget votes and cut their spending plans.

Ten school districts postponed their votes in response to the new law, according to the superintendents and school boards' associations. The most recent data from the Agency of Education suggests that the Legislature’s intervention has had a modest impact. The average projected property tax bill increase has decreased by only one percentage point, to 19%, thanks to a roughly $15 million reduction in proposed spending statewide.

Not all school districts traditionally vote on Town Meeting Day, and another 12 districts did not reschedule but are nevertheless slated to vote at a later date.

In South Burlington, where the $71 million school budget failed by a big margin — 2,856 to 2,072 — outgoing school board chair Kate Bailey said the district didn’t delay its budget vote because the new law arrived too late.

“Early voting and absentee ballots were already live,” she said in an interview Wednesday morning. “So the question before us was: do we want to delay a vote that's already in motion? Which felt like a difficult choice.”

South Burlington’s school board will meet Wednesday evening to seat new board members and consider its options. And while it can take money out of its capital reserve fund without cutting personnel to reduce next year’s tax bill, residents in that scenario will likely still see double-digit increases.

Bailey, who did not seek re-election, said she hopes lawmakers understand that their work is not done. And she argued that while the focus is on “education spending”, it should shift to “education costs.”

“In other words, I don't feel like school districts have a lot of agency about what they're spending their money on, because the costs keep rising,” she said. And she noted that many of these costs come from new mandates or standards enacted by lawmakers themselves.

In a statement, Don Tinney, the president of the Vermont-NEA, said Tuesday’s results were not a “repudiation of our local public schools” but instead a “reasonable reaction to completely unrealistic spikes in property taxes driven by events over which our dedicated local school boards have no control.”

And as it has in the past, the union called for income tax to replace the property tax as the primary funding source for schools.

“We also implore the legislature to take a serious look at how our local schools are governed and organized,” Tinney added. “And we continue to insist that lawmakers stem the flow of nearly $100 million a year in public education money to private schools without any accountability to Vermont’s taxpayers.”

School budgets failed in the following districts on Tuesday:

- Addison Northwest SD
- Alburgh SD
- Barre UUSD
- Barstow USD
- Champlain Islands UUSD
- Champlain Valley SD
- Elmore/Morristown UUSD
- Enosburgh-Richford UUSD
- Fairfax SD
- Georgia SD
- Green Mountain USD
- Harwood UUSD
- Holland SD
- Kingdom East SD
- Lamoille North MUUSD (Elementary Budget)
- Ludlow - Mount Holly Unified Union SD
- Milton SD
- Missisquoi Valley SD
- Montpelier Roxbury SD
- Mount Abraham USD
- Northern Mountain Valley UUSD
- Otter Valley UUSD
- Paine Mountain SD
- Rutland Town SD
- Slate Valley UUSD
- South Burlington SD
- South Hero SD
- Springfield SD
- St. Johnsbury SD

Peter Hirschfeld contributed reporting.

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Lola is Vermont Public's education and youth reporter, covering schools, child care, the child protection system and anything that matters to kids and families. She's previously reported in Vermont, New Hampshire, Florida (where she grew up) and Canada (where she went to college).
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