School officials pleased with budget results

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(Host) School officials say they’re pleased that voters supported budgets in most Vermont communities on Town Meeting Day. They say the results demonstrate that most voters understand the difficult factors facing many school boards.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) An analysis by the Vermont Superintendents’ Association shows that 226 towns gave their approval to their local school budgets, 19 communities rejected them and six passed their spending plans after making some cuts. On average, the budgets reflected a 6.5 percent increase in spending. Because many towns are experiencing a drop in enrollment, per pupil expenditures went up almost eight percent.

Jeff Francis is the executive director of the VSA. He thinks many of the budgets passed because local school officials did an effective job of explaining to voters that many of the factors driving up costs are largely out of their control – like special education costs, health insurance expenses and new federal mandates:

(Francis) “The process of considering school budgets is inherently a local process. And I think that a relatively successful year like this one reflects the fact that school district officials have done a pretty good job helping voters understand what’s involved in the school budget, what he factors are that have come into play.”

(Kinzel) Two years ago 51 school budgets were defeated. The Legislature responded to these defeats by passing Act 68, which created a two-tiered statewide property tax system. The new law also increased the sales tax to pump more money into the state block grant. Following the passage of Act 68 only eight school budgets were rejected in 2004.

Despite the increase in school budget defeats this year, Francis doesn’t think the state is on the verge of another taxpayer revolt.

(Francis) “I do not. That stated, I think that we need to be absolutely diligent in making sure that we continue to strive to put forth a high quality education at the most reasonable cost.”

(Kinzel) The week before Town Meeting, Governor Jim Douglas told reporters that the proposed spending levels were not sustainable and he urged voters to scrutinize their local school budgets.

Vermont School Boards director John Nelson says many voters followed the governor’s advice and decided the spending levels were appropriate:

(Nelson) “I think people who called for particular scrutiny with regard to school budgets this year, I think they found basically that a lot of scrutiny had been put into them. The boards came to the meetings well prepared and with budgets that were responsible and reflected the needs of students in the various school districts around the state. So I’d say we’ve got a pretty good result here.”

(Kinzel) The Legislature is expected to consider some changes to Act 68 to reduce the impact of the common level of appraisal, a provision that attempts to equalize property values throughout the state.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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