New School Budget Law

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(HOST) The new law on double votes for school budgets is raising concerns, even though it’s a year away from implementation. Commentator Allen Gilbert, a school board member, offers his insights on what’s going on.

(GILBERT) My school board has started drafting next year’s budget. Things feel a little different this time because of a new law passed earlier this year.

The law requires double votes of school budgets if the budgets exceed inflation guidelines. The law goes into effect in 2009. But board members need to think about the new law now, since we’re setting the base against which future budgets will be compared.

Already there are questions that education officials can’t answer. For example, the required wording for the first of the two votes asks voters to approve a school’s "total" budget. Yet the second of the two votes asks for approval of "additional" spending. Is this "additional" spending part of the "total" budget? To go a step further: What happens if, as predicted, there’s a drop in Medicaid reimbursements for services that are provided to some school children? If a school has to pick up the amount the federal government has cut, is that amount considered "additional" spending?

Questions such as these make things tough for school board members. And a level of political uncertainty was thrown over the new law when the state’s largest teachers’ union announced a drive to repeal it.

The questions, and the opposition to the law, stem in large part from the haste with which this double-vote legislation was passed.

There wasn’t much transparency as the bill’s final version was hammered out at the end of the legislative session. The usual deliberation given a bill with huge financial implications didn’t happen.

If you’re a school board member, you’re coached time and time again about the importance of process – meetings warned, items to be taken up clearly listed on agendas, open discussion, thoughtful votes based on evidence and made in the interests of all. It’s a high bar, to be sure, but it’s the proper one for any representative body.

In the Legislature, this process can go by the wayside as the session winds down. Legislation is forged in conference committees that involve only a handful of legislators. There’s little input from others. The conference committees meet with minimal advance notice, and the members strike deals that are presented, not to the committees of jurisdiction with expertise on the subjects, but to the entire chambers, to vote up or down.

The usual deliberative process, with close committee scrutiny and public input, yields to what insiders call a "sausage-making" process. You don’t really want to know what’s in the bill.

So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the new legislation is turning out to be hard for school boards to digest — much less implement. But what’s most ironic to me is that school budgets are the one big item over which local voters already have direct control. We can’t vote directly on military budgets, on health care programs, or on highway spending. But we can vote directly on school budgets.

I wonder if there’s any chance we could trade that second vote on school budgets for a vote on another state — or federal — budget item.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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