School spending cap plan causes concern

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(Host) A number of statewide education organizations are concerned about Governor Jim Douglas’s plan to put a cap on local school spending.

The groups say the proposal will hurt the quality of education in many communities and undermines local control.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) One of the key provisions of Douglas’s so called affordability agenda includes a 3 % cap on local school budgets. Under this plan, the cap can be exceeded only if 60% of local voters support the higher amount. Douglas says the cap is an effective way to control future property tax increases.

(Douglas) “The fact that it’s rising at twice the rate of inflation, twice the rate of family income growth and there seems to be no end in sight, that’s why I think we should join the 46 states that have some kind of limitation on property tax growth and put a cap on property taxes.”

(Kinzel) Jeff Francis is the executive director of the Vermont Superintendent’s Association. He says his organization doesn’t support the cap approach because it doesn’t address the real factors driving school budgets such as health care, special education and energy costs.

(Francis) “Also there’s a question of equity. If you have a low spending school district which is capped, its cap is in effect a lessor amount than a higher spending school district so when you think of the complex issues that contribute to school spending in general and you consider the simplistic nature of a cap we don’t think that it’s a system or method that would work particularly well.”

(Kinzel) John Nelson is the head of the Vermont School Boards Association. He says uncontrolled costs are currently having an impact on the quality of education in many towns and he thinks the imposition of a cap will exacerbate this situation:

(Nelson) “We frequently hear school board members say that they’ve had to make reductions in programs that they don’t want to make. But they don’t feel that they have a choice about it because there are external factors that they can’t control that are increasing the pressure on their budgets. So whether it’s a cap whether it’s these cost drivers that we talk about, they have a very similar effect.”

(Kinzel) Education Commissioner Richard Cate doesn’t oppose the idea of imposing a cap but he says he has strong concerns about the provision that requires a super majority of 60 % of voters to override the cap at the local level:

(Cate) “I think that’s the real debate is what most fairly represents the will of the people in terms of setting a budget and the associated tax rate what is the balance point between never being able to get a super majority if you really need one or being able to get it if you’re able to convince the public that there’s a sound rationale for it.”

(Kinzel) Douglas first proposed a cap on local school budgets in his State of the State address last January but he was unable to persuade lawmakers that it was a good idea.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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