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Every week, Vermont Public's politics team provides a succinct breakdown of some of the biggest issues at the Statehouse.

Capitol Recap: Vermont's education system is at 'a tipping point'

A gray building with a sign that says Lakeview Elementary School
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Voters signaled support for keeping the 27-student Lakeview Elementary School open on Town Meeting Day.

In a typical year, just a handful of school budgets fail to pass on Town Meeting Day. But this year was not like that. On Tuesday, voters in nearly a third of school districts rejected their spending plans at the ballot box.

For this week’s edition of the Capitol Recap, Vermont Public’s education reporter Lola Duffort spoke with Mitch Wertlieb about how we got here — and how this will impact the conversation in Montpelier.

This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So, Lola. Set the table for us. How unusual is it to see this many school budgets fail?

Lola Duffort: It’s very outside the norm. It might be historic. In the worst year for school budgets in the last decade, 14% of budgets failed. On Tuesday, we saw twice that many go down.

More from Vermont Public: Nearly a third of all school budgets fail on Town Meeting Day

Mitch Wertlieb: The Legislature will return to Montpelier next week following their town meeting break. How do you think this will play out at the Statehouse?

Lola Duffort: Well, the reason that so many budgets failed is because property taxes were projected to skyrocket by nearly 20%. And that’s because, collectively, the budgets that were put before voters represented a $230 million increase in education spending. So even before all these budgets went down, lawmakers were already saying, 'This is a crisis. Something has got to give.' Tuesday’s results confirmed for them, that they have a mandate for change.

Here’s what Rep. Peter Conlon, the chair of the House Education Committee, had to say when we spoke on Thursday:

Peter Conlon: This moment has been described as a crossroads or a tipping point. But it is certainly a key motivator to look at everything. And I would say more importantly, for us to talk about things that we've been reluctant to talk about in the past.

Mitch Wertlieb: What did he mean by ‘things we’ve been reluctant to talk about’?

Lola Duffort: Small schools. Vermont’s system is inherently expensive in part because we have a lot of schools that serve very, very few kids.

But again and again, when a school closure is on the ballot, Vermonters emphatically reject it at the polls. Just this week, for example, residents in Stannard, Woodbury, Hardwick and Greensboro voted against closing Lakeview Elementary school, which has just 27 kids. So while Vermonters increasingly don’t think they can afford their taxes, they also really want to keep small, community schools open. And those two impulses are absolutely in tension.

At his press conference on Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott quoted a former politician to sum up this paradox.

Phil Scott: I think it was Shap Smith, who said when he was speaker — he said everyone wants us to save money. Everyone wants us to close some of these schools. But no one wants it to be their own. And I think that says it all.

Mitch Wertlieb: So what are lawmakers going to do — pass a law this year that says “Any school with fewer than, say, 100 students, you must close?”

Lola Duffort: Definitely not! For one, the kinds of reforms lawmakers are beginning to discuss will take years to flesh out. Nothing big is getting passed this year.

And consolidation alone will not solve Vermont’s education finance woes. Lawmakers say they also need to wrestle with all of the things we’re increasingly asking schools to do, particularly when it comes to social services and mental health. They need to figure out if schools really should be delivering these services — and whether property taxes are the most appropriate revenue source.

"I know that school construction — actually funding school construction — will save us money in the long term. But I do think it will be hard for us to find our way through those first few years of it."
Rep. Emilie Korneiser

Mitch Wertlieb: And do Democrats really want to mandate consolidation?

Lola Duffort: No. I’m seeing a lot of momentum build behind the idea that since Vermont’s schools are old and in terrible shape, the state could use construction aid as a really powerful incentive to convince communities to create regional schools.

A woman speaks, gesturing with one hand.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, responds after Gov. Phil Scott's budget address on Jan. 23.

But of course school construction aid would also require money. I talked to Emilie Kornheiser, who is the chair of the tax-writing committee in the House about this.

Emilie Kornheiser: I think one of the very hardest parts of our jobs is that in order to save resources in the long term, we often have to spend more resources in the short term. And so I know that school construction — actually funding school construction — will save us money in the long term. But I do think it will be hard for us to find our way through those first few years of it.

Mitch Wertlieb: In the short-term, school officials have repeatedly asked lawmakers to find additional money for the education fund, to offset the need for higher property taxes this year. Will that happen?

Lola Duffort: Yes. But people should still brace themselves for much higher taxes. Lawmakers will try to soften the blow, but they’ve made very clear they do not have $200 million lying around — which is what would be needed to buy down this increase.

And they’re also worried that doing so would be counterproductive. In fact, that’s partly what got us into this mess in the first place. School spending increased a lot last year, too, but nobody noticed, because federal COVID-era spending provided Vermont with these totally insane surpluses for about three years. And with that surplus, which is one-time money, lawmakers bought down property tax rates.

Now that federal money is gone, those surpluses are gone. But we’re left with this much higher baseline in ongoing spending. And so there’s a concern about the impulse to find more one-time money to make this increase go away. Because that means next year, the situation will be even worse.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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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