No need for veto session
Here we are, in the first week of May. That means the end to Vermont’s annual legislative session is near. The closing date is scheduled for May 12 this year. By then, legislators should have bills wrapped up, final votes should be taken, and any bills that are passed should be on their way to the governor’s desk for his signature. But will that happen?
It appears that, once again, the Legislature and Gov. Phil Scott are headed for a showdown over education funding.
Last year Scott and the Legislature were at a standoff over whether or not to have the state negotiate a collective statewide insurance contract for schoolteachers. Eventually, Scott vetoed the budget bill, and then House and Senate leaders had to call for a special session in June to hammer out a deal. They did, Scott signed it, and eventually the budget was passed and signed into law. That statewide insurance deal, and the budget savings Scott sought? They didn’t happen.
Fast forward to this spring, and Legislature and Scott seem headed toward a showdown over education spending. This time over how to close a $58 million gap in the fund. Scott wants to use one-time money transfers to make up the gap. Legislative leaders would prefer to spend that money on other things, and pass the deficit on to property tax payers. Scott says that’s a non-starter for him, and is saber-rattling about another budget veto.
Are we headed for another veto session? Should we be? What we don’t understand is why legislators and the administration can’t agree on solutions to funding problems earlier in the session. It’s not like the education fund shortfall was a big secret. The amount has grown from initial projections, but everyone knew early on there was going to be a deficit.
Scott is now calling for a five-year plan to increase student-to-staff ratios at Vermont’s public schools. The idea for this comes from a study done few years ago, called the Picus Report, that says Vermont could save significant money in education by increasing its student-to-staff ratios.
Is it right for Vermont? That depends. Small schools may have a problem meeting an arbitrary figure. But that doesn’t mean school districts shouldn’t look at those ratios. But we don’t believe those ratios should be mandated by the state, at least not without a greater analysis of why some school have higher ratios and some have lower.
Speaking of analysis, a study conducted by the Public Assets Institute shows that only a handful of schools continually spend above the statewide average. So rather than punish those schools, the Legislature and the administration should be looking at the causes of that high spending and work to bring those costs down. At the very least, the Legislature should remove penalties for high-spending schools and instruct the state Board of Education and Agency of Education to work with habitual high-spending districts to see if costs can come down.
The other analysis that needs to be done, but hasn’t been, is the weighting study. The study was part of an omnibus education bill signed last year. But the AOE has yet to act on it, citing lack of manpower and resources. Local representatives John Gannon and Laura Sibilia have pushed hard for that study.
We’ve maintained for many years that legislators and state officials need to move beyond looking at per-pupil spending as the only measure of school district spending. While it is certainly a valuable tool, it doesn’t take into account bottom line spending, which can have a far greater impact on the state’s education fund than a rise in per-pupil spending in a small school district. A 3,000-student district that may see a $500 increase in per-pupil spending will have a greater impact on the education fund, at a cost of $1.5 million, than a $2,000 increase will on a district of 100 students ($200,000). Yet the smaller district would be the one more likely to face penalties for a dramatic swing in per-pupil spending, even though its impact on overall school spending is substantially less.
Vermont needs to stop dancing around the spending issue. Otherwise the game of legislative chicken over veto threats will continue, and nobody wins under that scenario.