Lawmakers say staff-to-student ratio fines are 'a horrible idea'
"This is a horrible idea," she told the Reformer. "It's by far the most blunt instrument the governor proposed to try and exact property tax savings. It's a slap in the face to communities and school board members working overtime to consolidate governance. I sit on one of those merging boards and I can tell you I worry quite a lot about fatigue in our communities and our school board members. Real change takes time. Real change and hard work has been happening and more will come as a result."
Last week, Gov. Phil Scott's administration proposed a threshold student-to-staff ratio for schools that would fine districts that do not meet the target. VTDigger reported that the statewide ratio is 4 students to one staff member and Scott's administration would like to set a threshold ratio of 5.15 to 1 for every school in the state. The Vermont Agency of Education would use a formula to fine districts as much as $20,000 to $40,000 starting in 2020.
About 1,000 school staff members are expected to be laid off over five years for a savings of about $45 million. Right now, there are about 18,000 such employees, according to VTDigger.
According to a spreadsheet provided by Sibilia using enrollment numbers from fiscal year 2017 from small school grant files, Townshend Village School had 6.13 students for every full-time-equivalent staff member while Windham Elementary School had 3.55, Jamaica Village School had 3.66, Wardsboro Central School had 3.85, Leland & Gray Middle/High School had 4.17, Twin Valley Elementary School had 4.73, Twin Valley Middle/High School had 4.91, NewBrook Elementary School had 5.2, Marlboro Elementary School had 5.54, Halifax School had 6.5 and Dover Elementary School had 6.61.
The two high schools and the elementary schools in Jamaica, Wardsboro, Wilmington and Windham would have exceeded the threshold. But Twin Valley Middle High would have been all right the year before because it had 5.64 students for every staff member.
Sibilia said it would be interesting to see numbers for special education enrollment but most of the schools are so small that it would be a potential privacy violation.
"Many are also geographically isolated," she said, adding that districts in Windham Central and Windham Southwest supervisory unions have taken "great time and effort to successfully guide their communities" through Act 46, the state law aimed at getting school districts to merge in order to find operational efficiencies and improve student equity.
"The quality and availability of Vermont's educational offerings are one of the most important factors a family will consider when relocating," Sibilia continued. "Gov. Scott has rightly highlighted the urgency of increasing Vermont's working age population. To propose taking a machete to our school districts at the exact time that most are — literally — in the midst of transformation is completely at odds with the effort to improve our population trends."
Rep. John Gannon, Windham-6, feels similarly to Sibilia. He believes the proposal marks an attack from the Scott administration on rural schools.
"It is sad to see that Gov. Scott is trying to cut school costs on the backs of our teachers and school staff," he told the Reformer.
Gannon and Sibilia had threatened the Scott administration with a lawsuit last year for not conducting a study on the potential for "rural weighting," a concept that would have the state look at location when considering the factors that make up the equalized pupil count. Sibilia said the study needs to be done "prior to proposals like this if we want to both save money and not hurt kids."
Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, thinks the governor's "suggestion" is out of touch with the realities of what schools are dealing with now and what community members want for their schools.
"I call it a 'suggestion' because this administration rarely will call anything an actual proposal. They float general ideas and see what sticks," Balint told the Reformer, recalling the governor's challenge to school boards last year to hold the line on spending under an increase of about 3.5 percent and how voters approved school board spending plans that came in with increases closer to 1.5 percent. "This took an incredible amount of hard work on the part of our school boards. Those budgets were then approved overwhelmingly across our state. That was the spending that voters felt was appropriate."
Balint feels like Scott is now taking school boards to task for not cutting more, although "this was not the original ask from the governor's office."
"As well, this administration — unlike the last 4 governors — will not let the tax rate naturally be adjusted by the level of education funding approved by voters," Balint said. "His scheme to continue to use one-time money to lower tax bills will not make the school funding system more transparent. In fact, it makes it less so. If the governor doesn't like the current system of funding our schools, he should make a concrete, detailed proposal to change it — not continue to artificially lower tax rates through one-time money."
Balint believes this is also the wrong time for the proposal because of the opioid crisis being in full swing.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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