Bruce Lisman: Local control matters
Vermont schools struggle to recruit quality teachers, to maintain their facilities, and to keep students in their classrooms. They struggle to provide quality education to our children who need skills for todays' workforce. They struggle to sell tax increases — which they don't control — to property owners. And, now they struggle to navigate a confusing and oversold education reform package known as Act 46.
Lawmakers who voted for Act 46 now call for "fixes" and "tweaks" to smooth over the most objectionable parts. But, there is no fixing it — Act 46 must be repealed.
In 1996, educational equity and property taxes were a big deal with wide discrepancies from town to town. At that point, educational decision-making was focused at the town level. Those days are gone in the shadow of the Supreme Court's Brigham decision which required that each child have substantially equal access to educational resources — a good and worthy goal.
The Brigham decision resulted in Act 60 — the Legislature's effort to make access to revenues, on a per-pupil basis, relatively equal on a statewide basis by making the state not the local town the taxing entity. After Act 60 came Act 68 which bifurcated property tax rates with one rate for residential and another for non-residential properties. However, while the state levies the property tax, local school districts still established local budgets.
A major flaw is the disconnection between decisions to spend and the obligation to raise taxes. For school districts, this means their hard fought savings get diluted across the statewide grand list with little benefit to them. Conversely, decisions to spend more are paid slightly by the sponsoring district but mostly by all other districts. Vermonters are now seeing this is a fatal flaw in the current system as the number of enrolled students decline.
Politician's steady march toward more centralized power is evidenced by their current ability to place further burdens on and draw money from the Education Fund. For example, in 2011 in order to balance the state budget Governor Shumlin and the Legislature grabbed $24.4 million from the Education Fund. In 2012, they added the costs of a "high school" at the Corrections Department.
The bottom line — our current education financing system is neither transparent nor accountable. Local communities are left in the dark until the legislature sets the property tax rate. This system is unfair.
And so, in the face of growing taxpayer distress, the Governor and Legislature enacted Act 46, it undermines school choice, puts in place statewide spending caps on local districts, will increase property taxes in hopes to lower them, and in the end allows the State Board of Education to force school district consolidation on local communities — further distancing parents from meaningful engagement in their children's schools.
Simply put — it moves all power to the State, and it's wrong. I stand with parents.
Every report on education in the world will tell you that the best principals and the best teachers get the best results — so let's bring them here. Let's give local school districts the tools to address changing student populations and shift our resources back to the classroom where they belong.
We can accomplish this by getting rid of supervisory Uunions and replacing them with regional education tax districts that serve as the platform for local school districts to unleash efforts to reduce administrative overhead and create strong relationships with local parents and taxpayers. We can create a system that encourages a more entrepreneurial approach to school district management and allow regional taxpayers to keep the rewards of cost effective stewardship. Creating a regional budget process for local school districts encourages neighboring towns to work together as they tackle the formidable challenges of educating our youth.
My proposal shifts power back to the middle — diminishes the state's power and increases power at the local and regional level. Regional tax districts would be run by local school boards and set up along the lines of our current technical education districts to manage property taxes to support local schools. State aid, currently at $503 million, can be distributed to any region with relative weak property grand lists to ensure compliance with the Brigham Decision.
With this proposal, Vermonter's will know the impact on their property tax rate when they vote on their school budget. It's time to reconnect local decision-making with local tax rates.
Vermonters are ready for a new direction. I'm ready to lead Vermont in a new direction.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.