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Dozens of Vermont school districts remain without a budget

A red brick and white building with a metal roof with lettering that reads, "Fair Haven Union High School."
Nina Keck
Vermont Public file
Fair Haven Union High serves the six towns — Castleton, Fair Haven, West Haven, Orwell, Benson and Hubbardton — in the Slate Valley Unified Union School District.

In 1996, the town of Benson set a state record when, after two years of rejecting school budgets, its voters finally approved a spending plan on the 13th try. Asked by a Rutland Daily Herald reporter at the time if she had a reaction to the news, the school board chair replied: “Sure I do, but it would split your eardrums.”

Amid a statewide tax revolt nearly 30 years later, school officials in the Slate Valley Unified Union School District, which includes Benson, are hoping history won’t repeat itself. But they are bracing for a difficult summer.

“I am significantly worried about ever having a passed budget and the implications on students,” said Slate Valley Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell.

Since Town Meeting Day, 90 school districts in Vermont have successfully won voter approval for a budget — some on their third try. But 33 districts still don’t have the green light from their residents, according to data compiled by the Vermont Superintendents Association.

"I am significantly worried about ever having a passed budget and the implications on students."
Brooke Olsen-Farrell, superintendent, Slate Valley Unified Union School District

Voters in Slate Valley will head to the polls on Thursday for the third time this year, and Olsen-Farrell said she has a simple message for the residents in the six towns she serves.

“Further ‘no’ votes are not going to really decrease your taxes. … But it will be substantial cuts to educational programming,” she said.

That’s because Vermont’s complicated system for funding its schools relies on a statewide pot of money. Two variables ultimately impact how much property taxes go up (or down) in any given town: how much that district spends per-pupil, and the aggregate amount that needs to be raised statewide to pay for all the school budgets approved by local voters.

With revisions, districts without budgets can still change their per-pupil spending. But with so many school budgets across Vermont now locked into place, the total that will need to be raised statewide is nearly set. That will leave districts who continue to revise their spending downward to win their voters’ approval with diminishing returns when it comes to reducing their residents’ actual taxes. Lawmakers could adjourn as soon as this week, and are preparing to pass a property tax bill that assumes a statewide increase in education spending of 10.7%.

School officials elsewhere in the state are attempting to communicate this complicated reality to their voters ahead of revotes this week.

“For every dollar we cut from the school budget, St. Johnsbury saves about 20 cents. The state keeps the rest and uses it to lower taxes in other towns. This is not a vote on what is happening in Montpelier. Please keep that for November,” St. Johnsbury School Board Vice Chair Peter VanStraten wrote in a letter to the district’s voters ahead of their third budget vote this week.

More from Vermont Public: Vermont voters continue to reject some school budgets, raising questions about a backup plan

In Slate Valley, the revised spending plan before voters this week is just $211,500 less than the $31 million budget that was originally presented in March. School officials considered further cuts but ultimately held off, and have sought to emphasize that the district, which is one of the poorest in Vermont, already spends far below the state average per-pupil.

Cutting more would be a particularly tough pill to swallow, Olsen-Farrell argued, since higher spending in more affluent communities contributes to the tax pressure felt locally.

“We have kids in other districts around us that are receiving more resources, and our kids are receiving less. But that is lost in the conversation, and I think it's just because the system is so convoluted and hard to understand. And people tend to vote 'no' when they don't understand something, too,” said Olsen-Farrell.

The district also has little room to maneuver: It has already signed contracts with its educators and transportation provider. All that’s left to cut are sports, maintenance projects, clubs, and summer and after-school programming.

Even Curtis Hier, the lone Slate Valley school board member advocating against the budget, acknowledges that “fiscally, pretty much our hands are tied at this point.” Since the school budget is the only direct veto power people have about the way schools are run, Hier has instead attempted to turn the budget into a referendum vote on the district’s proficiency-based grading system.

“My point is let's do something to show people that we're serious about providing a better education,” he said.

In an apparent counterpoint to Hier, a recent letter from Olsen-Farrell to voters argued that “continuing to vote down our budget will force us to reduce resources which are necessary to increase test scores.”

Patricia Beaumont-Stannard, Slate Valley's school board chair, said she's also increasingly worried that more cuts could flip some former "yes" voters to "no."

"There's that opposition factor where people are saying, 'No, now we don't have enough money. So now I'm gonna vote 'no' on the budget, because I want more money in the budget,'" she said.

Districts will be required to continue educating students, even if budgets fail into the fall. If a district gets to July 1 — the beginning of the fiscal year — without a voter-approved spending plan, it is authorized to borrow up to 87% of its prior year’s budget to cover expenses. The state will also send partial educational payments.

Given the likelihood that several districts will get to July 1 without a budget in place, lawmakers briefly considered creating a new backstop that wouldn’t rely on borrowing. But they ultimately decided to leave the status-quo in place. What’s in current law seemed, for now, “as good as anything we could have come up with,” said Democratic Rep. Peter Conlon, the chair of the House education committee.

“We did not feel comfortable removing the authority of the voters to approve a school budget,” he added.

Josh Martin is a resident, parent and kindergarten teacher in Slate Valley, and he says he’s sympathetic to his neighbors who keep voting the budget down. The ninth-generation Vermonter says he and his family talk often about relocating to northern Minnesota, where his wife is from, because of the ever-climbing cost of living here.

“I'm a fairly liberal fella here living in Vermont, but like, Jeezum Crow, we're getting taxed out of here,” he said.

Still, he’s helping to organize a get-out-the-vote effort to pass the budget. His job is safe, but he’s worried about what else the schools will need to amputate to get the budget down. The school board has already floated requiring parents to pay for after-school programming and cutting sports. Besides, Martin said, those cuts won’t result in commensurate reductions in local tax bills.

“You're still going to see an increase, and the money that you pay with your taxes are just going to go to other districts who passed their budget,” he said. “And the kids in your district are going to be left with, you know, the 87% that the school district has to borrow to operate.”

The year after Benson passed its school budget on the 13th try, lawmakers passed Act 60. The landmark education finance reform decoupled education tax rates from local property values, and gave Vermont one of the most progressive school finance mechanisms in the country.

But lawmakers say the 30-year-old formula has met its expiry date. Critics increasingly say it is too complicated for people to understand, and fails to target spending where it is most needed. And while no major reforms will pass this year, lawmakers have pledged to spend the next year and half sketching out an overhaul.

“I think that there will be lessons that we will take away from this period in Vermont history, and I do think it will probably be recorded that way,” said Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

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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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