In so many ways, if state education officials want a crystal ball to see what will happen to merged school districts five, 10 or more years down the road, they just need to look at the Twin Valley school district. Twin Valley was formed more than a decade ago, and has already done many of the things the state is asking other districts to do: consolidate governance, close buildings, attract tuition students, and streamline operations.
Despite all those things, the Twin Valley school district has a budget problem. And that problem may be all of Vermont’s problem in another decade, if not sooner.
As we reported in last week’s edition, Twin Valley’s problem is not one of district officials’ doing. The district is caught in a Catch-22: a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dilemma. Even though officials have continued to cut spending, taxes are set to rise dramatically due to declining enrollment, a lower common level of appraisal, and per-pupil spending penalties brought about by that declining enrollment. Homestead taxpayers in Whitingham could see a 52-cent increase in the school portion of their property tax bill, and Wilmington homestead payers could see a 20-cent rise. That’s a problem, a big problem, and one that school districts around the state will see more and more often. Census projections continue to point to declining school enrollments for the foreseeable future, which means that even though school boards may continue to control spending, sometimes even dramatically, penalties and rate adjustments at the state level will continue to force tax rates higher.
The problem points out the flaws in how the state accounts for school spending, and how current law penalizes schools for things outside their control, like student enrollment and fluctuations in property tax valuations.
Vermont education officials and legislators need to move away from per-pupil spending as the preferred measure of school spending. Per-pupil spending makes it too easy to say smaller schools need to make cuts or face penalties. In Twin Valley’s case, the district is faced with penalties even after cuts have been made.
By the continued reliance on the per-pupil spending number, the state’s own argument for big districts works against the concept of controlled growth. That argument is that larger districts can spread their cost fluctuations out over a greater pool of students. While that does tend to keep per-pupil spending rates down, it also masks 6%, 7%, or larger spending increases because it hides the total dollar amount behind the the per-pupil rate.
That’s why we liked the 2% spending caps imposed by Act 46 when it was first signed into law in 2015. But, the big school districts quickly realized they were going to be inconvenienced by having to control their growth that much. After a sizable number of complaints, the law was changed during the 2016 legislative session. It’s funny how when the big population centers gripe about how a law impacts them, changes happen fairly quickly. When small towns complain, it often falls on deaf ears.
Now there are no spending caps remaining in Act 46, and schools can continue to increase their budgets. Lawmakers need to realize that sooner or later, most districts in Vermont will face the same issues Twin Valley is facing now. Twin Valley just happens to be ahead of the curve.
Another thing lawmakers and state officials need to realize is that with school choice available in some manner to every high school student in the state, there will be movement between schools and some schools will see enrollment go up and some will see enrollment go down. Schools that see enrollment drop shouldn’t be penalized for something out of their control and that the law allows. That’s exactly what has happened with the Twin Valley district, and taxpayers in Wilmington and Whitingham, along with students, their families, and staff at the schools, will pay for that arbitrary penalty.
What can people do to help? Well, yelling at local school board members won’t do much, and would be misdirected. They are dedicated people who are only trying to do their best given what they have to work with.
Taxpayers and voters can and should call, write or email legislators to let them know how unfair the current system can be. Legislators, especially those from outside the area, need to understand how the laws they support can have severe negative impacts. Twin Valley’s problems are real, and are the closest thing to an Act 46 crystal ball we have. We can only hope others realize that sooner, rather than later.