With restrained spending, most school budgets pass

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(Host) Many Vermont communities approved their school budgets on Town Meeting Day.

The Douglas Administration says the new two vote budget law is a major reason why overall school spending was more restrained this year.

But a number of school officials say the Vermont economy was a much bigger factor, and they want lawmakers to repeal the law.

VPRs Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) 227 towns passed their school budgets while 21 communities rejected them – that’s about the average annual number of defeats in the past 15 years.

Jeff Francis is the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

He thinks many budgets passed this year because voters realized that their local school boards had put together a tight budget to reflect tough economic times:

(Francis) "This year school budgets were up just a little over 2% which compares very favorably to what was seen in prior years so I think that it’s the closeness of the process – the fact that school boards are in touch with what’s going on in the schools and in the community and the fact that everyone is aware of what’s transpiring with the economy."

This year also marked the first time that Act 82 was in place – that’s the new two vote budget law. The law requires higher spending towns to present two budgets to voters if the school board wants to increase spending by more than 4%.

Tax Commissioner Tom Pelham thinks the law played a critical role in helping to restrain spending:

(Pelham) "I think so, I think it’s going to be hard to decipher how much is Act 82 and much is just a huge downturn in the economy in the last four to six months… so the fact the school budgets are trending downward relative to the Education Department’s expectation is good news."

John Nelson is the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. He says many local boards wanted to avoid the provisions of Act 82 but not for the reasons that Commissioner Pelham thinks:

(Nelson) "I’m afraid that the answer might be because they know that number one the law was set up in a way that is essentially prejudicial in the way that the required ballot language which is structured that it creates I think the false impression that that second amount of money is frosting on the cake when in many cases it might not be so I just think that boards looked at that and said if we can stay away from that we want to do it."

Governor Jim Douglas called on towns to level fund their budgets this year to show that they understand the tough economic choices facing the state. Commissioner Pelham says the school votes show that some towns get it and some don’t:

(Pelham) "It is somewhat of a disconnect but it is changing… and so I think there’s going to be 2 or 3 or 4 years of adjusting to a new economic reality and fortunately school districts began to reflect that in their budget proposals and my guess is that next year we’ll see more of this."

Legislation has been introduced at the Statehouse to repeal Act 82 but it’s not clear if lawmakers will seriously consider the bill this year.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.


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