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April Surprise: Governor Waits Until Closing Days to Unveil School Funding Plan

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Gov. Phil Scott - FILE: TERRI HALLENBECK
  • File: Terri Hallenbeck
  • Gov. Phil Scott

Gov. Phil Scott convened an education summit at Norwich University in December to discuss the perennial problem of paying for public education in Vermont. "My administration will propose a plan to address the shortfall in the education fund in the coming legislative session," Scott said in his opening remarks.

We've been waiting ever since. But now, it looks like the plan is finally coming. In a statement emailed Monday afternoon, Scott spokesperson Rebecca Kelley wrote, "The administration plans to present our recommended path to closing the education fund gap in the coming days."

Hooray.

Last year, the administration got on the wrong side of lawmakers by waiting until April 20 to propose statewide negotiation of public schoolteacher health care benefits. When Scott insisted on the change, the legislative session went into overtime, and the issue wasn't settled until late June.

This year's April Surprise is arriving even later.

We got a foreshadowing last Thursday, when the governor suggested moving roughly $40 million from elsewhere in the budget to prevent a projected 5.5 cent increase in property tax rates for the new fiscal year.

Until that announcement, his administration had insisted that sufficient savings could be wrung out of the education system in the fiscal year beginning in July. But on Thursday, Scott conceded that he wouldn't try to crack open local school budgets — which came in below spending targets he set last November and were overwhelmingly approved by voters on Town Meeting Day.

For lawmakers and school officials, it's been a long, frustrating wait to hear what the governor would like to see in a spending plan.

"The window of time for that is rapidly closing," said Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. "Unfortunately, we've had situations in recent years where things don't get resolved until the last 48 hours of the session, and that tends not to go so well."

"I've asked him publicly, his staff has been asked in committee, I've asked him in private meetings, 'Can you please come to the table with a plan?'" said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero). "What I get back is 'We want to work together with you.'"

The administration's idea of "working together" was embodied in a menu of 18 school savings ideas presented to lawmakers in mid-January. "We gave them quite a list," Scott said at Thursday's press conference. In his view, presenting a menu of options is a more open-ended, collaborative method than putting forward a single concrete proposal.

Top lawmakers didn't see it that way. "A menu is not a proposal," said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). He believes it is the administration's responsibility to come up with a specific plan to achieve goals that are, after all, the governor's own.

The details are finally coming this week. But the fundamental approach is unlikely to win favor with lawmakers or school board members, who are leery of again using onetime money for ongoing operations. Scott argued last week that the move is acceptable if it's accompanied by reforms that will produce measurable savings in future years. "We'd look at it as an investment ... in order to keep the [tax] rates where they are," he said.

One of those "investment" ideas was revealed Tuesday, when Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin laid out a plan to impose financial penalties on school districts with high staff-to-student ratios. At a hearing of the House Education Committee, Greshin admitted that the proposal hadn't been "fully vetted" and struggled to square the idea with Scott's insistence on no new taxes or fees.

Sounds a bit sketchy. There's also no guarantee that the projected savings will materialize or that they won't be overwhelmed by rises in other cost factors, such as health care coverage. And lest we forget, it was last year's school funding compromise that contributed to this year's projected rate hike.

"It ended with the utilization of onetime money," noted Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association. "We knew at the time that it was going to create a problem this year."

Repeating the exercise this time around could have even worse consequences in the future, as then-candidate Scott himself pointed out in 2016. "We need to stop using onetime money to plug reoccurring budget holes," his campaign website read. "We must also stop borrowing money to pay salaries and fund short-term projects."

Candidate Scott, meet Gov. Scott.

If that's not enough irony for you, here's some more. When it comes to Vermont's federally mandated waterways cleanup, Scott is willing to count on what he calls "organic revenue growth" to bankroll the massive 20-year effort. That is, economic expansion putatively caused by his policies will obviate the need for new taxes or fees for the cleanup plan.

But when it comes to public schools, that same "organic growth" is nowhere to be seen. Scott's own projections are dire; he sees public school enrollments continuing to decline and tax burdens trending upward. Drastic action is needed, he argues. But if the economy grows, doesn't it grow housing markets and property values as well as taxable incomes?

Legislative leaders also see evidence that school costs are coming under control thanks to recent legislation, including school district mergers encouraged by 2015's Act 46 and a special education reform bill that's moving through the legislature this year.

"It's hard to imagine a scenario where we aren't operating more efficiently in terms of personnel and facilities," Ashe noted. "It won't happen in one year. We're talking about over the course of several years."

Asked if he is confident that K-12 costs will moderate, he replied, "Short answer? Yes."

Which raises the question: If costs are coming under control, why take the fiscally questionable step of using onetime money? Is a gubernatorial promise on property taxes reason enough?

For Scott, it is. For others, not so much.

The results of Town Meeting Day speak for themselves. School districts proposed very low spending increases — substantially lower than the growth in the state's own budget. And voters approved a whopping 96 percent of all school budgets. No sign of a widespread property tax revolt there.

Despite the late entry of Scott's proposal, Ashe remains cautiously optimistic. "There's still time," he said. "My feeling is, there is absolutely no reason we need to have a veto session at all this year — for the budget or tax bills ... [A veto session is] only necessary if both parties don't want to avoid it. And I can tell you, we don't want a veto session."

Ball's in your court, governor.

Francis and Mace, on behalf of the administrators and elected officials who have to deal with whatever emerges from Montpelier, are pleading for a longer-term view.

"It really takes a multiyear plan," said Francis. "I wish that the notion of coming together on a multiyear plan had come at the governor's summit [in December]. That would have been an opportunity."

An opportunity missed, it would seem. And now here we are, on the brink of another April Surprise and another pell-mell rush to adjournment.

"For me, it's a question of whether history is doomed to repeat itself," Francis remarked. "Local school officials continue to be ready to work in a planful way with the folks in state government. We haven't really seen that approach. We'd like to see it."

Wouldn't we all.

Gliding Into Montpelier

If David Blittersdorf has his way, you'll soon be able to ride a refurbished ski gondola between downtown Montpelier and the National Life Group headquarters on a hill across the river. It may seem like an outlandish notion, but it's actually a growth industry. "Ski lift manufacturers are finding that the ski industry is not the future," he said. "They're going into public transit."

The distance between National Life and the city center is only about 1,200 feet as the crow flies, but it takes about 10 minutes by car or 15 by shuttle bus. "Wouldn't it be nice to connect the two with a one-minute gondola ride?" Blittersdorf asked.

"And it's fun!" he added with a laugh. "It could bring tourists in, along with the normal transportation."

Blittersdorf is willing to put up the money himself. He foresees buying a refurbished gondola from a ski resort. He estimates the total cost for purchase, installation and startup at $3 million to $4 million.

Blittersdorf, a renewable energy developer, has stopped taking on solar and wind projects in his home state, due to what he calls Vermont's unfriendly regulatory climate. So he's turned his attention to Earth-friendly transportation. He wants to help create a true multimodal public transit system in Vermont, including the rebirth of passenger rail.

That's likely to take some time. "There are some major brick walls we're trying to bust through," he said. "There are so many regulations, and we have to get people to think in a different way."

The gondola could come online more quickly. Don't know if it'll happen, but Blittersdorf is right about one thing: It'd be fun.

Media Note

The retirement of Nat Frothingham will, in the words of Honest Abe, be little noted nor long remembered outside of central Vermont. But in these parts, it's the end of an era.

Frothingham is stepping down in June as editor and publisher of the Bridge, a Montpelier-based free newspaper that publishes twice a month. The Bridge is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and Frothingham has been there from the beginning.

"I've been associated with the Bridge in almost every capacity," he noted. "I've sold ads, delivered the paper, written, edited, had a seat on the board. I've owned the paper."

Disclosure time. I was managing editor of the Bridge for two years, from 2008 to 2010, when it was a weekly paper. Editorially, it was a great adventure. Financially, it was a glorious disaster. Somehow, Frothingham kept the thing going and paid back its substantial debts.

Since then, the Bridge has been reinvented as a community-based nonprofit with a governing board. Which means it's time for a change. "The timing is right," Frothingham said. "It's a great moment for me to step aside."

Taking the reins is journalist Mike Dunphy, a Vermont native who's spent much of his career based in Europe. But now he welcomes the return to his home state and to what he called "the purest form of journalism ... this very pure ideal of what the community needs to know."

Frothingham is planning a clean break when he retires. "I want to get some separation, take some time away," he said. "I certainly don't want to be the guy who came to dinner and stayed."

Sensible. Besides, at 79, the guy deserves a break.


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