Our Opinion: Questions for Gov. Scott

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Gov. Phil Scott is expected in Brattleboro on Monday for a lunch sponsored by the Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce. We're glad to welcome him here. And we've got just a few questions.

Scott is an engaging speaker, and make no mistake about it, he's not just a regular guy who lucked into getting elected governor despite running as a Republican in the most progressive state in the union. He has significant political acumen, and an ability to connect to everyday Vermonters in events such as these, even though he's wearing a suit and tie and shadowed by a plainclothes officer. How he answers such questions and engages with voters are a big part of his popularity, especially in a state where politics are person-to-person.

But Scott's current political circumstances — having outraged Second Amendment absolutists by signing a package of common sense gun laws that didn't take one weapon out of circulation, and facing the state's chronic budget problems with the self-imposed restriction of no new taxes or fees — will demand every bit of that skill to achieve a re-election that looked like a cakewalk a few months ago.

And the state's most chronic budgetary problem — its growing education budget, despite a shrinking student population — is front and center as Scott pays us a visit.

So here are a few education funding topics that we'd be interested in hearing about Monday afternoon:

Vermont is still without a Secretary of Education as it approaches the June 1 deadline for a draft statewide education governance plan under the Act 46 school consolidation law. That document has serious implications for communities that did not agree to merger plans under Act 46 by the Nov. 30, 2017 deadline. While there's been a good deal of speculation over the reasons for former Secretary Rebecca Holcombe's departure, what matters more is the lack of a permanent appointee to handle a decision that is vitally important for parents and educators and students in our region.

Because they could not agree on Act 46 merger plans, school districts in and around Bennington and Brattleboro are waiting to see what the state recommends. Will the state respect the "will of the voters" by not mandating plans that were soundly defeated at the ballot box, or by accepting plans that didn't pass, but were still widely favored? Or will it simply impose mandates? We'd like to hear what the Governor thinks of that.

State officials have made it clear the Act 46 process is moving forward on schedule. And Heather Bouchey, the Deputy Education Secretary, may very well be capable of handling the task. But in our view, asking an interim secretary to make that decision is not a fair request. Nor is it appropriate, given the long-reaching importance of this decision. So we'd like to hear from the Governor where the hiring process stands, and what he expects from a new secretary of education when it comes to Act 46.

Then there's education funding, which continues to divide the Republican governor and the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

VTDigger.org reported this past week that the hole in the Education Fund for fiscal 2019 has grown to $58 million, well in excess of the $40 million that was earlier projected. Suddenly, Scott's earlier offer of "one-time money" in return for future cost containment makes less sense, and we'd like to hear if he's changed his mind, given the bigger gap. We know Scott has the capacity to change his mind, as seen with his wise decision on balancing the right to bear arms against the state's responsibility to keep its children safe.

It's all well and good that Scott does not want to pass along a property tax hike, estimated at 5.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. But it's not possible to kick that can down the road forever. Until and unless the state faces its funding problems head-on, the day is coming when tax increases or more significant budget cuts will be necessary, if not both. So we'd like to know from Scott: If any tax hike is dead on arrival, where exactly will he cut?

Up to this point Scott has broadly hinted at the need for education staffing reductions, without specifically saying layoffs need to happen, how they should happen or when. With the plan he floated this past week to reduce staffing ratios from a statewide average of 4 to 1 to a target of 5.15 to 1, starting in 2020, that threshold has now been crossed. As many as 960 educators could lose their jobs, according to an initial estimate.

While it's still very much a proposal, we'd like to know whether Scott is willing to risk negative educational impacts from such cuts, and whether they're worth a projected savings of $45 million. We'd also like to know how laying off professionals, who might need to leave Vermont to find work, squares with his desire to bring educated professionals to our state as a means of expanding the tax base.

In Vermont, where politics is still about personal relationships, we're lucky that we have a chance to meet with Gov. Scott and hear him out on issues such as these. It should make for an hour well spent.


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