COVID-19 has created significant challenges for Vermont’s public education system. Although our teachers and administrators have been doing an exemplary job in ensuring continuity in student learning, remote education is not a substitute for that offered within our school buildings. Students returning to school, hopefully this Fall, will have lost ground and will lack certain skills and concepts that they were to learn this Spring. They will have greater need for support and will require additional instruction to close gaps created by the COVID-19 disruption. It would be inappropriate to cut back on school funding critical to educational support and programming.
Legislators recognize the need to, at a minimum, maintain the current level of educational services. But we also understand the financial stress faced by the community that pays for the State’s public education. That stress comes at a time when the State faces an education fund deficit this year and a projected shortfall next year due primarily to the significant reduction in the collection of consumption taxes such as the sales tax and room and meals taxes. It also comes at a time when 19 school districts, including South Burlington, have not passed a budget for next year.
The House Ways and Means Committee has been trying to determine how to address the revenue shortfall while avoiding a significant increase in property taxes. The Committee has been exploring various revenue options including federal relief funds provided to Vermont through the CARES Act. Unfortunately, determining how to use those federal funds to help pay for public education has been complicated due to the many restrictions on their use. The jury is still out on whether that resource will provide the needed relief.
The legislature has also sought to address the situation of the 19 districts that do not yet have a voter-approved budget. The House and Senate Education Committees are determining the spending levels that these districts would be authorized to incur if they are unable to obtain voter-approved budgets. What default budget is authorized if concerns over public health prevent a district from holding a budget vote before the new fiscal year? What can the districts spend if they do have a vote, but no budget is approved by the voters before the new fiscal year? The schools must continue to educate the community’s children, but with what budget?
Under the city’s charter, the South Burlington School District can borrow the equivalent of the previous year’s budget until it obtains a voter-approved budget. In South Burlington, which has seen an increase in enrollment – 90 additional students expected next year – a level-funded budget would result in the layoff of approximately 30 teachers and/or staff, larger class sizes, a reduction in advanced placement courses, a reduction in class offerings including some foreign languages and drivers education, less social and emotional support, and fewer co-curricular activities.
Other districts could face more dramatic cuts. Without a voter-approved budget, those districts, under State law, face spending levels restricted to 87% of their previous year’s budgets.
To address this situation, the Senate and House Education Committees have contemplated various options. Districts could be allowed to spend at the previous year’s budget level. Or they could spend at the previous year’s budget level but with a cost of living increase. Or they could spend at the previous year’s budget level plus the average budget increase across the State (a bit over 4%). Or school boards could adopt budgets without a vote, so long as those budgets were lower than previously warned or defeated budgets. It is not clear where these committees will end up, but this last idea has been particularly controversial and has little likelihood of finding support in the legislature.
In any event, school boards, including in South Burlington, are reluctant to proceed with budgets that have not received voter approval. Fortunately, soon after the Governor imposed a state of emergency, the legislature passed Act 92 to grant the Secretary of State authority to modify election procedures to ensure voter access and public safety. The Secretary provided guidance allowing municipalities flexibility in scheduling elections and setting forth standards for safely conducting them. South Burlington will be following those standards for early voting on the School District’s budget and on the May 28th in-person voting day.
Worksheets and online learning do not substitute for trained teachers in classrooms. The legislature, as well as the South Burlington School Board, recognize this and are seeking to ensure that our public schools are adequately funded to make up for our students’ lost time. Admittedly, this is asking a lot of our community, but the students will need our support this Fall.