By Lynn Monty, Editor in Chief
Last week, the Senate Education Committee rejected Gov. Phil Scott’s Jan. 25 proposal to the Legislature to force school boards to impose a spending freeze, or level fund, their budgets.
This comes as somewhat of a relief, considering that the Champlain Valley School District (CVSD) just completed an extensive year-long effort toward a first-ever consolidated budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year. The board approved the single $75 million budget for a coordinated pre-K to 12 system on Jan. 17 and it is still slated to be presented to voters on Town Meeting Day in March.
Along with the call for no growth in school budgets, Scott also proposed that all school districts vote on budgets at a later date, well after Town Meeting Day, to give them more time to reduce their budgets. This was also rejected by the Senate Education Committee.
It would be difficult to quantify an absolute level-funded number for CVSD due to it being the first year of consolidation, Champlain Valley School District Board Chair Dave Connery said. “We are in our first year of Act 46,” he said “Level funding would be difficult to quantify. Also, level funding mandates don’t address the issue of high fixed costs for small schools that have a cost/pupil well above $15,000.”
Act 46 is a Vermont law that requires towns to weigh school district consolidation options. The Chittenden South Supervisory Union school boards will be fully replaced with the CVSD board in July. The consolidated budget has resulted in a reduced tax rate for Charlotte. “That is a significant development,” Connery said.
The CVSD budget allows for teacher salary increases of three and a half percent, Connery said. Teacher salaries make up nearly 80 percent of the overall budget. Total spending is up four percent with the first installments of payments for work to be done at Williston and Shelburne schools.
“There are many moving pieces to the governor’s proposal that have been made not so obvious,” Connery said. For example, “Moving the teacher pension fund out of the general fund makes the general fund look good but sure doesn’t help the education fund. While that pension needs a home, don’t talk about one credit without the other debit.”
Scott proposed to help fill the $75 million general fund budget gap by moving the $35 million annual teachers retirement obligation to the education fund in his budget address last week.
Connery asked what would happen to the current CVSD budget if three to five percent needed to be removed. “That is nearly 35 teachers, and $3.75 million is a large number,” he said. “All of the teachers at Charlotte for example.”
The CVSD board has begun thinking of ways to leverage consolidation, but the process was very difficult the first time, Connery said. “It would be super frustrating to have to redo this budget again after having just completed it,” he said.
The Scott administration expressed disappointment with the Senate Education Committee’s rejection of the mandate, and they are optimistic that their proposal will be better received in the House.