The limits of local control


It seems every district faced sticker shock in looking at local educational spending this year. The governor and tax commissioner have criticized local school boards and taxpayers for not exercising greater fiscal responsibility. What they fail to acknowledge is how little control we have at the local level for school spending.

The largest part of any school budget is teacher salaries and benefits. The typical calculation is this constitutes up to 80 percent of school costs. Despite admonitions from Montpelier, local school boards have almost no influence on this line item. We certainly have no control over the costs of health insurance that rises incessantly and usually much above the rate of inflation. More significantly, even if a local board attempted to freeze teacher salary increases, collective bargaining agreements require binding arbitration that compares your district to surrounding districts with their raises and inevitably requires some level of increased salaries.

Teachers also enjoy a unique salary schedule that provides "step increases" for each year of service whether or not there is any announced annual raise. Thus, teachers get "double raises"--a percent increase in overall salaries in addition to a step increase of about $1000 for most teachers. What is reported as a 1 or 2 percent "small" increase in teacher pay really ends up closer to 5 percent when step increases are included. For reference, a 5 percent annual increase will result in a doubling of pay in just 14 years.

Special education services are required by law and hence are totally beyond local control. A child identified for support services, or one who moves into your town, brings costs that cannot be reduced. Moreover, the state audits special education services in districts 3 to 5 years after the services are delivered and documented. Without fail, some part of these special educational expenses are "disallowed" by the auditor. The reasons for disallowance are many, but mainly reflect small mistakes in documenting time or (imagine this) where a special educator uses her skills to help a struggling student needing support who is not officially labeled with an IEP. In Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, the state sent back to the district a bill for hundreds of thousands of dollars for the audit they just completed on the 2010-2011 school year.

For those in union middle or high school districts, the local elementary board has no say over the per pupil cost sent to us. I guess we could save some money by encouraging some high school kids to drop out, but as long as our students attend the local public high school, the per pupil cost is multiplied by the student number and that is the bill we must pay.

The list of what else we don't control at the local level includes: core curriculum, state testing (and the computer resources which are required for the new tests), grade level expectations (that then make it difficult to consolidate grades into multi-age classrooms in small schools), the need for all sorts of documentation and outside consulting support for any school "in need of improvement" (which is an ever growing list of schools in the state), and all sorts of required infrastructure (classroom size, fire safety, gym facilities, etc.). Although localities have some choice over textbooks, in truth, most textbooks are made for Texas and California approval boards -- the largest markets in the U.S. What is out there is designed for these states with a lot more money than Vermont. Likewise, educational technology is a constantly increasing expense that was not part of school budgets decades ago, but this seems a given for any modern educational institution.

There are countless other costs to schools from school breakfast programs to various health education requirements to curriculum programs and progress monitoring tests that all add up. The expense side of schools continues to rise regardless of school size.

The other side of the equation is revenues, and pressures there differ from school to school, but the trends are clearly negative. Federal funds have decreased (remember the sequester?), the state homestead tax rate is up, and localities such as Westminster hit a perfect storm of decreases in the common level of appraisal and the number of equalized pupils, along with a deficit resulting partly from unanticipated but required special education costs incurred the previous year.

All this adds up to small increases in overall spending, bigger increases in per pupil costs, and shocking increases in the tax rate. Altering the funding formula may ease the burden on some while increasing the burden on others, but in the end, there are no easy solutions to this situation. Public education has become a complex system involving an enormous array of stakeholders. In the face of so many outside influences, the level of local control is, at best, quite limited. As the state looks for ways to address the costs of education, there may be few simple solutions in what has become a very complicated system.

Rick Gordon is a Westminster School Board member and a founder of Compass School, where he serves as director.


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