Sanders, Douglas Disagree On Use Of Education Funds

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas and Senator Bernie Sanders disagree over how new federal education money should be used.

The governor wants to use the money to reduce a deficit in the teacher’s retirement fund. But Sanders says Congress directed that it be used to avert teacher lay-offs.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Governor Douglas has long pointed out that Vermont has the best student-teacher ratio in the country. With about 11 teachers for every student, Douglas says Vermont could save millions of dollars if it allowed that ratio to increase to 13 to one.

So he’s not in favor of spending $19 million in federal funds on preserving jobs in education. The teacher’s union has warned that up to 300 jobs could be lost if budget cuts are imposed. But Douglas wants to keep the pressure on school districts to cut costs.

(Douglas) "We don’t need to save teacher positions. I don’t know of 300 that are going to be eliminated. In fact, over time we need to reduce our expenditures because we’ve lost 3,000 kids in our public school population in the last couple of years and school districts keep hiring more people."

(Dillon)  Douglas wants to use the federal money instead to help address a deficit in the teacher’s retirement fund.

But Senator Bernie Sanders disagrees. He says Congress directed that the money be spent to avert teacher lay-offs.

(Sanders) "So I think the money is designed to go to maintain these teaching positions and in my view, that’s where it should go."

(Dillon) Sanders agrees that the teachers’ retirement fund – like many – faces a deficit. He says it’s a national problem. But he says Congress was very clear in the law about how this money could be used.

(Sanders) "What we’re trying to focus on, what I am trying to focus on, many members of Congress is to create as many jobs, and retain as many jobs in the midst of this horrendous recession."

(Dillon) The law says that states cannot put the money into reserve or rainy day funds. And they are not allowed to use the federal funds to retire debt. Administration officials are trying to find out if the language would bar the state from spending it on teacher retirement funds.

Martha Allen is president of Vermont NEA, the state teacher’s union. She says the language in the law is very precise.

(Allen) "Those funds are pretty much earmarked for school employees as far as teachers and support staff jobs, to preserve those jobs. So he really would be going against the intent and the law if he tried to put that money in any other place."

(Dillon) There’s another wrinkle as well. The federal law directs that the money be spent in the current school year. Those budgets have already been voted on. So there is some question whether school districts would have to hold a special meeting to decide how to use the federal dollars.

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



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