Democratic lawmakers say they’re keeping an open mind about Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s just-released proposals to control education costs.
Secretary of Administration Susanne Young sent a memo to legislators Thursday evening outlining 18 ideas to tamp down school spending and change the state's K-12 education funding system.
One of the more drastic measures would require school districts to reduce staff in fiscal year 2019 — increasing the staff-to-student ratio from 4.25-to-1 to 4.45-to-1. The memo claims this could be accomplished through attrition. Another proposal would cap state spending at $17,000 per student, forcing districts that spend more to raise the additional money themselves.
In the category of "five-year initiatives" is a proposal to create a commission to identify "nonviable" small schools and "consider the most cost-effective way" to consolidate them.
Scott has pledged to hold property taxes level in 2019, but he's also hinted at the need to make more fundamental changes to the state's education system.
“It is our view that Vermonters want us to work together and be willing to think outside the box that has constrained education financing discussions for many years," Young’s memo states. "And we know they want us stave off the continued growth in statewide property tax rates, which has been increasing faster than wages.”
Democratic lawmakers on Friday were reluctant to offer specific critiques of what Scott is calling a “menu” of options.
“We really haven’t had a chance to review it,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden).
“I don’t want to seem like I’m against anything,” Rep. Dave Sharpe (D-Bristol), who chairs the House Education Committee, told reporters.
“I think the most promising thing is that they’re coming to the table with a bullet list of ideas in week three or four rather than week 14, 15,” observed House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero). Last year, she and other lawmakers chastised Scott for proposing changes to teachers’ health insurance late in the session.
Johnson did note that, “A lot of big ideas sound good at first, and then when you get to the nitty gritty of implementing them is when you realize why they’re very difficult to do.”
The teachers’ union was less constrained in its criticism. Vermont-NEA communications director Darren Allen said, “We know enough about it to know that it’s the same discussion about getting rid of hundreds and hundreds of jobs [and] slashing resources for kids.” The Scott administration is “telling local school boards and local parents that they know best,” Allen said, calling it “an assault on the way we run schools in the state.”
Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said he’s reaching out to his members for their reactions. He had a more charitable take.
“I think every one has a different challenge associated with it, and I think the reaction from the field and from the General Assembly will be important,” Francis said. “But to me it signals what I already knew, which is that [Scott and his team] are serious about trying to accomplish some things.”
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.