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34 School Budgets Rejected, Largest Number In Over A Decade

Voters turned down 34 school budgets this week. School officials say the vote is a signal that changes need to be made to the state's education financing system.

In the past 22 years, there has been only one year when more than 30 school budgets were defeated on Town Meeting Day.  That was in 2003 when 42 budgets were rejected and those defeats led to the passage of Act 68, the state's education finance law.

"I do not see this as a 'taxpayer rebellion,' if you will. It is a statement of concern and the need for attention." - Steve Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association

Steve Dale is the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. He says that in about half of the rejected votes this year, school boards were seeking large budget increases.

In the other half, Dale says the school boards were proposing rather small increases but they saw their property taxes go up dramatically because of the state’s education funding system.

“I don’t see this as a ‘taxpayer rebellion’ if you will. It’s a statement of concern and the need for attention but I don’t hear too many people saying let’s throw out the whole system and start over,” said Dale. “But I expect there will be pressure to take a much closer look as we move towards next year.”

Dale says part of the problem is that the state’s contribution to the Education Fund has fallen in recent years and this situation has placed a greater burden on property taxes.

“There needs to be a look at property taxes, what are all of the drivers pushing property taxes and some of those are local kinds of consideration,” said Dale. “And some of them are clearly statewide considerations in terms of how much general Fund money or broad based tax money goes into the Education Fund.”

Governor Peter Shumlin says it’s critical for lawmakers and local school officials to find a way to continue to provide a quality education while holding the line on spending.

"Our student count has dropped 20 percent over the last seven, eight, nine years but we continued to see our per pupil spending going up." - Gov. Peter Shumlin

“That’s really our challenge,” said Shumlin. “Our student count has dropped 20 percent over the last seven, eight, nine years but we continued to see our per pupil spending going up because we’ve got fewer and fewer kids in classrooms and our student count keeps dropping.”

Several times in the last month, the Governor has urged local voters to closely scrutinize these budgets to help keep spending under control.

In Montpelier the school budget was defeated for the first time in many years and school board chair Sue Aldrich says Shumin’s comments undermined the hard work of many local school boards.

“We also had the governor who in my opinion was sort of a bully tactic not just to Montpelier but to the whole state,” said Aldrich.

Shumlin insists that was never his intent and that he was merely repeating comments that he heard from people all around the state.

“Vermonters were saying to me loud and clear we can’t afford double digit increases in our property taxes when our incomes aren’t rising that fast,” said the Governor.

Shumlin says he sees no reason to throw out the state’s current system but he is willing to consider some short and long term changes to the system.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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