August 18th, 2019

Guest Opinion:Local Control Is Key to Public Education Success

Guest Opinion: Local Control Is Key to Public Education Success

By Martha Heath

Twenty years ago Vermont made a firm commitment to retain local control of decisions about school spending. This carefully considered choice came in the wake of the Brigham decision in 1997, when the Vermont Supreme Court ruled the state’s education funding system was unconstitutional. The decision made it clear the state had the ultimate responsibility to ensure the Vermont’s schoolchildren had equal educational opportunities.

To satisfy the court, the Legislature crafted a funding system that recognizes that we are all responsible for educating all of the children in the state. At the same time, the system affirms that spending decisions should be made locally by those closest to and with the best understanding of the needs of the children in the community.

Lately, though, Montpelier appears to be backing away from this important commitment to local decision-making.

In December, the governor asked local school boards to match him in holding spending growth for next year to 2.4 percent or less. School boards responded, and at Town Meeting votes across the state 95 percent of our local communities passed budgets that held that spending growth to 1.5 percent, far below what the governor had requested.

Now the governor is asking that another $40 million be cut from these approved budgets.

His request shows a puzzling disregard and lack of respect for the work done by local school boards and communities. The governor would never question the decisions local voters make when they go to the polls to elect state officials and legislators. Why is their judgement in passing local school budgets not sound?

Act 46 initially dictated school-spending levels by imposing tax penalties on communities that exceeded prescribed growth limits. The result was a breach of one of the fundamental principles of the current funding system: districts with the same spending per pupil have the same tax rates. Fortunately, the penalties were repealed.

School consolidation exercises require large amounts of time for hundreds of volunteer school board and community members. This work is on top of the task boards have guiding the annual operation of our public school systems.

Constant change is making this task ever more difficult as boards have been working to respond to requirements regarding consolidation discussions, proficiency based learning and personalized learning plans. These requirements are important yet time consuming. To add to the challenge this year, the governor is asking for money to be cut from already passed school budgets and the legislature is contemplating a change in the school funding system that would impact budgets already passed. Isn’t it disrespectful of local voters to change the rules of the game after budgets are finalized?

School boards, school board members, and local voters are a critical part of our successful public education system in Vermont—one of the best in the county. To continue to make it better, it is important that state policy makers respect the work that is done at the local level and work with school boards instead of making their jobs more challenging. Our children’s future depends on it.

Martha Heath lives in Westford. She is a long time school board member and is a former member of the Vermont House.

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