By Stephen Dale
Gov. Peter Shumlin’s recent commentary about school budgets and property taxes is disappointing and has responses ranging from bewilderment to outrage from Vermont’s school board members. The governor’s comments in his budget address and at a recent press conference are misleading to a confused public and intended to create space between the governor and projected increases in property taxes.
In his budget remarks, the governor stated, “I am not at all happy that Vermonters will once again bear an increase of five to seven cents in the statewide property tax rate next year based upon projections for local school spending.”
This statement is misleading. Any increase in property taxes this year reflects multiple factors—some related to local spending, some reflecting the absence of one-time funds applied by the state in past years, some resulting from declining property values and some by the failure of the administration and the general assembly to properly support the education fund. In 2005, only 61 percent of the education fund was provided through property taxes. In 2014, that figure has risen to 68 percent. That is one major driver of property tax increases.
Vermont school boards are very concerned about the cost of education and property tax pressures. Although proposed budgets have not been finalized in all districts, most are quite modest. A scan of statewide media sources reveals numerous accounts of intense public meetings where boards have proposed substantial reductions in staff. Vermont’s school boards are responsibly developing budgets in their efforts to balance the needs of students and taxpayers. These efforts occur in the context of an ever-expanding list of obligations imposed by the state and federal governments. Vermonters, on Town Meeting Day, will review those budgets and determine whether enough work has been done to reconcile interests and meet new obligations.
In a year when property taxes are projected to rise at a rate greater than the percent increase in proposed budgets, we all owe it to the citizens of Vermont to be sure that we and they understand the moving parts, have properly defined the problems and have set out to solve them. We don’t want voters rejecting school budgets based on frustration due to their inability to make sense of a confusing funding system. If that happens, it is the education of children that will suffer. Where local spending increases are inappropriately high, those need to be addressed by local voters. Where the state’s education finance system is contributing to high property taxes by under-funding the education fund, that needs to be addressed by the governor and the legislature. Most importantly, all elected officials must seek to understand the situation, define problems and set out to solve them, rather than engaging in finger-pointing and blame and seeking to confuse the electorate.
Stephen Dale is the Vermont School Boards Association’s executive director.