Column: Gov. Scott has no grand plan for affordable schools

By REBECCA HOLCOMBE

For the Valley News

Published: 06-12-2024 10:26 AM

It’s Groundhog Day. Gov. Scott vetoed the yield bill, again leaving Vermont school districts adrift. The reason: all the school budgets voters approved add up to more than Gov. Scott wants them to spend.

None of us likes an increase. Some legislators are leaving because they can’t afford to serve. We need people to call our communities home, operate businesses, care for the sick and educate children. We know property taxes affect the cost of housing. That cost is making too many people say “No, thanks.”

However, exactly what the governor expects the Legislature and local school districts to cut is a mystery. As Seven Days noted: “Scott cautioned the public not to expect he’ll have any grand new proposals.”

So, why the veto?

We need real leadership — not politicking — to move us forward.

Health insurance premiums are up by double digits for yet another year, not just for school budgets (almost $50 million or 5 cents on the tax rate), but also for the state budget, business budgets, municipal budgets and family budgets. Out-of-control health care costs hurt everybody, but we can’t fix them at our kitchen tables or in school board meetings. What has Gov. Scott done — not said — to help?

Rising costs associated with mental health demands explain another 5 cents of the increase in this year’s property tax rate. Addressing mental health means treating risks at the source, including supporting parents, so parents can support their children. For that, the governor needs to bring his social service agencies — or what is left of them — to the conversation.

Increased infrastructure costs explain another 5 cents of the increase, and are aggravated by ambitious but poorly thought out policy on PCB mitigation. We need the governor’s help on this, too. What we have instead: the administration continues to turn up problems then leave solutions (and cost) to others.

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Just those items alone account for most of this year’s tax spike.

Gov. Scott claims he has no “grand solutions.” His one big idea was to borrow from the future to pay for today. Then State Treasurer Mike Pieciak noted that this proposal would erode our state’s credit rating, making the future even more unaffordable.

As he did in 2018, the governor insisted on using “one-time money” to pay for ongoing costs — an unsustainable practice. The Legislature compromised by using $70 million for this purpose. Now, there are no additional dollars to throw at this problem.

Voters voted on school budgets. The governor signed the state budget. At this late date, what can we cut? We have few tools:

■ We could eliminate the property tax exemption for charitable and religious purposes, “saving” about 4.5 cents on the tax rate.

■ We could reduce or asset-test the exemption for current use, “saving” up to 5 cents on the rate.

■ We could asset-test income sensitivity, “saving” by limiting who gets this credit.

■ We could phase out TIF funding, which redistributes opportunity within the state, and about which the Joint Fiscal Office said “the core theoretical assumption upon which tax increment calculations are based is flawed and unsupported by the data and economic theory.”

All of these actions would yield savings for the majority of taxpayers. Will the governor advocate for them?

The reality: In education, as in health care, taxpayers are paying for too much infrastructure, both in Vermont and out of state, often in units that are too small to affordably provide quality programs.

As a colleague used to say, a person can’t go to a 28-course buffet, pay only $4 and expect the food to be edible. Too often, our answer to rising cost and sagging quality is to add another course.

We could reduce and improve “courses” by bringing more children into fewer, more robust schools. The state’s actions do the opposite.

There is no path to affordability that involves forcing public schools to compete with private schools that are narrow in scope, out-of-state, or exclusive in enrollment. Taxpayers in every community help fund tuition to:

■ out of state prep schools for more privileged children,

■ even smaller private schools (including schools with no teachers),

■ religious schools that refuse to comply with public accommodations laws.

None of these programs can replace public schools or inclusive private schools like Thetford Academy. They do erode the scale and affordability of schools with a public mission.

If you support this, as the governor does, don’t complain about cost. This is a recipe that, across states and in Vermont, results in higher cost and worse outcomes overall. Let’s keep our dollars in Vermont, in schools of sufficient scale, and in schools that meet the public obligations of our public education fund, as defined in our Education Quality Standards.

I’m disappointed we did not do better this session, but I will vote to override this veto. The bill is more responsible than the governor’s offerings, and some of his ideas would raise taxes. The bill requires summer work that puts us in a different position next year. It cushions the blow this year, while protecting children and our most vulnerable taxpayers.

Rep. Rebecca Holcombe, D-Norwich, is a former Vermont Secretary of Education.