Sometimes is as valuable to know what not to do as what to do. The Scott administration’s proposal to have all Vermont’s school districts schedule revotes on their budgets, and to have the revotes complete by late summer or early fall, is an example of what not to do.
The ide was floated by Department of Finance and Management Commissioner Adam Greshin. The motive was clear; the drop in revenue would necessitate about a 25-cent increase in the property tax rate to fund the school budgets passed on Town Meeting Day. Mr. Greshin made the point that the world has turned upside down since the budgets were approved. If voters were allowed to revote their budgets, they would insist [or not] that school boards redo their budgets to reflect the economic effects of the pandemic.
He’s right, they might. But that’s only part of the story. It’s too late for schools to lay off teachers and they are bound by contracts. The only real means to reduce labor costs is to not replace people through attrition. It’s also very late into the year; turning schools inside out in the search for savings is an exercise that takes more than the month or two they have been given to pull the revotes off. To say it would be chaotic is an understatement. Additionally, if an exercise of this magnitude is done poorly, then the costs — in every sense of the word — are compounded.
There is also the very real worry that a fair percentage of our schools’ students struggled with the remote learning process of the last quarter of the school year. Adding a new level of instability seems ill-advised if the goal is to educate our children to the best of our ability.
The state could easily find its educational fund $170 million short. If it’s not to be made up by increasing property taxes, and if revotes are out, then what is the alternative?
As Mr. Greshin says, these are extraordinary times, which demand extraordinary actions. There are three paths forward: the easiest, and best is having the federal government dole out more money to the states and to allow states to use the funds to plug holes in the budget. It doesn’t solve all problems, but it gets us a long way down the road. It’s also makes the most sense. Should that not happen, the state should at least consider taking the unusual step of borrowing money and borrowing the bare minimum, just enough to get through this year. Borrowing costs are near zero, it could be paid off relatively soon. Third, is making the tough budget choices, funding education [plus health care and the Agency of Human Services] and putting most other budget decisions off for another year.
What won’t work is to ask school districts to strip their budgets, and ask their voters to traipse to the voting booth within the next 8 to 12 weeks.
by Emerson Lynn