Local school budget cap debate intensifies

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(Host) The debate over Governor Douglas’s plan to impose caps on local school budgets is expected to intensify this week at the State House.

Administration officials say the caps are needed to rein in local school spending but opponents say they undermine local control of education and will wreck havoc on many school budgets.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) For the past 2 years Douglas has been backing caps on local school budgets but there’s been very little support at the State House for the plan.

That changed when the Senate gave its approval to the proposal ten days ago by a one vote margin.

The House didn’t include the caps in its cost containment bill so now a House Senate conference will review the issue.

The governor’s plan imposes a 4% cap for budgets considered next March and a 3 % limit for the following four years.

It would take a super majority of voters, or at least 60%, to pass a budget that exceeds the cap.

John Nelson is the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. He thinks that 60% threshold is undemocratic.

(Nelson) “I think people feel as though that’s simply not democratic, that it allows a minority of people in a community to basically control the agenda in terms of budgets and school spending and it’s a wrong headed idea.”

(Kinzel) Tax Commissioner Tom Pelham disagrees. He thinks the 60% threshold is a fair way to help control local spending.

(Pelham) “You really have a competition here between those in the education lobby that actually like the status quo, where the money is rolling in at a very healthy rate – 5, 6, 7% a year and it’s being pulled out of taxpayers pockets whose wealth is growing at maybe 3, 3 % a year. That status quo is not sustainable over the long run.”

(Kinzel) Jeff Francis is the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association. He says most school boards have little control over the factors driving their budgets and he thinks the cap will hurt the quality of education in many towns:

(Francis) “The 3 % doesn’t even meet inflationary costs for schools. So what does that leave? That leaves schools having to deal with programmatic cuts. Not only does it ignore reality, it’s disrespectful of the job that school boards are doing now to deal with that responsibility in the best manner possible.”

(Kinzel) But Tax Commissioner Pelham says it’s a mistake to link school spending to the quality of education that a school provides.

(Pelham) “Statistically there is no relationship. Spending more money and getting a higher output or a better output for kids is not a relationship that’s very tight at all. But if people feel at the local level that they need to spend more under the governor’s proposal, they can spend more.”

(Kinzel) It’s possible that the issue could be presented to the full House as a way of indicating to the Senate how a majority of House members feel about the cap plan.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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