Education Officials, Union Clash Over School Funding

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(Host) When the legislature returns in January, education funding will be one of the many budget issues lawmakers will be dealing with.  Administration officials and the teachers’ union are clashing over proposed restructuring and financing. 

VPR’s Jane Lindholm has more.

(Lindholm) In November, Vermont’s Education and Finance commissioners sent a letter to school administrators detailing the education funding crisis rearing its ugly head and offering suggestions for budget reductions. Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon says there’s little choice-school budgets will have to be reduced.

(Reardon) "To do nothing is simply going to cause significant out-year deficits that will make the challenge even more difficult than it is today.  The overall objective of the Governor for FY 2011 is to have no increase in statewide property taxes and to address the fiscal challenges and place the budget on a sustainable basis, both the general fund and the education fund."

(Lindholm) Among the recommendations suggested by Reardon and Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca is moving a portion of the teachers’ retirement obligation into the Education fund.  Another is requiring school employees to pay 20% of their health care premiums, which would save as much as $14 million a year.  The Vermont-NEA, the teachers’ union, objects to these two particular cost-saving measures.  Martha Allen is the Vermont-NEA President.

(Allen) "In reference to the health insurance premium payment, that is something that the state should not step into.  That’s a collective bargaining agreement that is made between the teachers and the local school boards.  And that, to me, is really stepping out of the realm of the Department of Ed."

(Lindholm) That doesn’t wash with Education Commissioner Vilaseca.  He says everyone, including teachers, has to come to the table with cost-saving measures.

(Vilaseca) "Teachers are working within a system that is inherently inefficient.  At the same time, if they were able to contribute a little bit more, it would remove that whole sort of attack mode from people who say that teachers aren’t paying their fair share."

(Lindholm) Another controversial suggestion from Commissioner Vilaseca deals with school consolidation. 

(Vilaseca) "We have too many school employees in our schools.  We have a 5-1 adult to student ratio in our state.  It doesn’t matter what you do really to a certain extent with contracts.  We just have too many people."

(Lindholm) The Commissioner would like more power to control and implement consolidation plans statewide.  Martha Allen, with the Vermont-NEA, says the teachers’ union isn’t opposed to district consolidation in theory, but it doesn’t like the idea of local control being stripped from individual towns.

(Allen) "I can understand why he would like to do that because it’s less personal.  It’s maybe somewhat easier to take a stand that way."

(Lindholm) Well, yes, says Commissioner Vilaseca.  He argues that individual school board members aren’t always able to make the tough decisions to cut staff or even close a school because it is so personal.  And, he says, a state-wide consolidation plan would be able to look at the big picture in a less emotional way.

School boards need to have school budgets drafted and printed for Town Meeting Day in March. 

For VPR news, I’m Jane Lindholm.

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