Douglas Plan To Cut School Spending Gets Cool Reception

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas wants to reduce the amount the state spends on schools.

As VPR’s John Dillon reports, the proposals got a cool reception from Democrats and from interest groups.

(Dillon) The bi-partisan mood that dominated the first few days of the legislative session seemed to vanish as the governor presented details of his school funding proposal.

The governor wants to cut spending and reduce the number of teachers. He also wants to change "income sensitivity" provisions of the state’s education funding system.

Windsor Senator John Campbell, the leader of the majority Democrats, said some of the proposals take decisions away from local school boards.

(Campbell) "What he’s put here on the table is, I think, the antithesis of what a leader should be doing. The Legislature has repeatedly said, ‘No,’ to increasing property taxes on middle income Vermonters. We’ve repeatedly said, ‘No,’ to the state of Vermont usurping local control. And what he has said here, in essence, does exactly that."

(Dillon) The issue of local control also concerns Steve Jeffrey, the director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Jeffrey said Douglas is right that the state’s education funding system is in need of reform.

(Jeffrey) "I’ll agree with him that it’s a problem. I’ll agree with him that it’s very confusing and that we’ve really lost control of the system. What I’m not so agreeable to is his recommendation for change, which is Montpelier saying, unilaterally, ‘We’re going to suggest – we’re not going to suggest – we’re going to make you cut teachers,’ Or, ‘We’re going to penalize you if you don’t cut teachers.’"

(Dillon) The Douglas administration says strong action is needed because education spending – and the taxes that support it – are both on an unsustainable track. Neale Lunderville is administration secretary.

(Lunderville) "We see the picture clearly for next year, the picture that if we do nothing property taxes overall rise $59 million, that rates will go up 2 cents for both residential and non-residential, and that if left unchanged for the future, rates will jump up another 20 cents by 2013."

(Dillon) The administration wants to go where the money is in education – teacher salaries. Governor Douglas wants schools to cut about 1,200 teachers over the next four years as older teachers retire. The state has about 9,000 teachers working in public education, and even with the reduction, Douglas said the state’s student-teacher ratio would remain low.

The teacher’s union will fight the cuts. Joel Cook is executive director of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association.

He said the governor’s speech included many familiar proposals.

(Cook) "There’s nothing new about his desire to shrink the number of teachers that take care of our kids in all of our communities around the state. There’s nothing new about his attempt to wrest control of our schools from local school districts and our communities around the state."

(Dillon) Cook said the number of teachers has increased, despite a drop in the student population, because of the demands of special education and other classroom services.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.


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