VPR’s Nina Keck went to Rutland City to take a close look at the costs of public education. She found that there are many ingredients.
But there’s also one undeniable fact. Over the years services provided by the schools have grown significantly.
(Keck) Michael Dick and John Stempek have invested years in Rutland City’s public schools. Stempek is assistant Superintendent of schools. Dick, a local dentist, served 22 years on the city’s school board – most of those as its president. He stepped down last year. I sat down with the two men recently to talk about what’s driving up the cost of public education.
(Dick) “Everybody will talk about health insurance and fuel costs and those are true in any business. What I think is so different about our school department is the fact that so much of society’s responsibilities have been delegated now to the school department.”
(Keck) Rutland City educates just over 2,300 students in 7 different school buildings. The district does benefit because of its size when it comes to maintenance and busing. But Dick and Stempek say serving a more metropolitan area also increases costs.
(Stempek) “The issues that Rutland probably deals with that maybe a Wallingford does not is the level of poverty that is involved in the city. We have about 52% of students in Rutland City are on free or reduced cost lunches.
(Dick) “We are now required to provide programs and services starting with breakfast. We teach them. We provide lunch. We teach them. We have to maintain after school programs because many of these kids have two parents that are working or single parents who are working. They’re not home so we are responsible from 6 to 6. That’s expensive.”
(Keck) Dick says twenty or thirty years ago kids with physical and mental disabilities as well as those with behavioral issues were taught at specialized schools. For the most part, those have been closed, he says. And local schools are now responsible.
(Dick) “Instead of looking at 8 or 9,000 per student, the cost for those students is over $20,000 for the specialized services that are required. So there’s been a significant cost shift from the state budget to the local property tax payer who’s providing these services in the school department when they used to be housed in state sponsored programs.”
(Keck) When it comes to academic performance, Dick and Stempek say the additional testing required by the federal No Child Left Behind law has also increased costs and has forced administrators to retool curriculums. John Stempek says that while the testing may point out areas of need, he says those needs can’t always be met.
(Stempek) “Right now the department of education really doesn’t have the ability to provide the level of technical assistance to all the schools that are currently in the Needs Improvement’ area. And that number is going to rise and they admittedly just don’t have that. And in this part of the state it’s very hard to find those folks – consultants in math and reading – experts that are available to come into your schools and help you. If you had all the money in the world you might not be able to find them.”
(Keck) The thing that John Stempek and Michael Dick want taxpayers to understand about funding education is that it’s complex and emotional. Michael Dick says he’s pleased to hear that Education Commissioner Richard Cate is considering consolidating some school districts in the state. But Dick says he knows first hand experience how difficult that can be.
(Dick) “We saw it here in the city of Rutland where at one time we had seven primary elementary schools. We’re now down to two. They’re large and that’s a problem for some folks because more kids are on a bus. But that allowed us costing scales that were very very beneficial to us as a school district.”
(Keck) Former school board president Michael Dick says he’d like to show Rutland City residents two school budgets – one from the 1970s and one from today.
If tax payers could see all the different programs and services that are now available, he says it might help people understand why public education has gotten so expensive.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.