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Senate Candidates Speak Out on Education Costs

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by Joyce Kahn

On November 4, Washington County voters will elect three state senators. Incumbents Bill Doyle (R), Anthony Pollina (P-D), and Ann Cummings (D) will appear on the ballot along with Pat McDonald (R), Sandy Gaffney (P-D), and Dexter Lefavour (R). The Bridge is posing three questions to the candidates on critical issues. Candidate responses to our first question, “Please suggest specific ways to sharply cut the growing costs of public education,” appear below.  In two subsequent issues, candidates will address ways to keep our youth in Vermont and give their positions on health care and single-payer insurance.

Question: Please suggest specific ways to sharply cut the growing costs of public education.

 

Ann Cummings, Montpelier, Democrat:

I could suggest several specific ways to cut the growing costs of public education, such as having the state determine how much money schools can spend, mandating the consolidation of school districts, requiring a certain number of children in a class, or doing away with income sensitivity. I could suggest such solutions, but I’m not sure they would be good for either children, communities or taxpayers. I understand that property taxes are a burden for many people. I pay them and they hurt. I also know that we cannot afford not to educate our children. They are the future of our communities and our economy. These are complex and emotional issues for everyone. They involve our sense of place, our children, our money and our local control. To find the answers we have to reason together. No one denies the problem. To find the solution I think we, the legislature, must find a way to engage the public. I have great faith in the people of Vermont, in their common sense and sense of community. Given the opportunity and the right leadership, I know we can find a solution that will educate our children without unduly burdening our pocketbooks.

 

Bill Doyle, Montpelier, Republican:

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Several schools throughout Vermont are in the process of perhaps combining some of their courses with other schools that are nearby. The best example is Montpelier and U-32, who are at the present time speaking to each other about combining courses that have relatively few students into one class instead of separate classes—particularly the languages. Similar conversations are taking place through Vermont, with funds coming from the state of Vermont to encourage that.

Also, where possible, the budgets of supervisory unions should be put to a popular vote.

 

Sandra Gaffney, Berlin, Progressive-Democrat:

In order to create excellent schools for all children, in all communities, we need to look at why the costs are rising. The economy is still stagnant; livable-wage jobs are scarce; affordable, safe, housing isn’t being built; and health care costs are continually going through the roof.

Many community members do not have unlimited resources to continue to pay more and more property taxes, and are rightfully pushing back in order to be able to live dignified lives and keep their homes. We have made cuts to programs, teacher and support staff positions, field trips, and so forth, risking the quality of our education. We seem to be at the bare bones point now. One thing that hasn’t been addressed so far is how much the cost of administration has ballooned. Many administrative positions have been added at the top levels. Before we ask the communities to sacrifice local control of schools, we need to analyze the impact and consider the cost of administration. Sharing resources could be a positive action to reduce costs and create community along the way. Once we have our own health care in Vermont via Act 48, we will not have to deal with higher and higher insurance premiums that each school has, when considering budgets. Funding for education will have to be creatively looked at with input from the communities as we go forward.

 

Dexter Lefavour, Middlesex, Republican:

Vermont (and America) is lagging behind other parts of the world in its ability to adapt to the  educational needs of the 21st century. Our public school system is archaic. We have centralized power over local schools to the state and federal government beyond reason.  There is neither a “one size fits all” education for every child nor an administrative model for every school district. Reinventing the public school system to one that grants flexibility to towns to create a model that works for them, including freely choosing whether to join with one or many towns in the creation of a district; and assisting those who choose to attend private schools or home school (at a lower cost than public schools) should be encouraged. Decentralization and distributed education are worthy options to be investigated while still maintaining the integrity of a new and ever-evolving public school system.

 

Pat McDonald, Berlin, Republican:

Realistically Vermont’s two biggest education cost drivers are student-staff ratios and the top-heavy administrative system that supports the core of education—the student, teacher and the classroom.

To find the solution I would collect relevant data from all the studies and recommendations made over the years, make sure the systems in place are functioning as they were intended, look at long-term demographics, set educational goals, determine funding requirements and address the “elephant in the room”—student-staff ratios and the complex bureaucracy that has developed over time. I would recommend redrawing supervisory union lines, making sure we keep an administrative system that works and does not undermine local authority. I would establish long-term, incremental goals that would achieve stability in the system as the number of students continues to fall. Systemic changes with long-term results are an important part of any solution. For example, if we grow the grand list, the cost of education would be borne by more taxpayers, thereby reducing individual tax burdens.  We could also identify the non-education-related services that by statute should be paid from the general fund.

Another more dramatic approach to education financing is to repeal Act 60/68 and develop a replacement system. One thousand Vermonters signed a petition to this effect last legislative session. We are now on our fifth system in 31 years. Perhaps it’s time to make the tough choices to put education funding on the right path to providing a fair and balanced system that is easily understood, transparent, high-achieving and affordable. 

 

Anthony Pollina, North Middlesex, Progressive-Democrat:

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to “sharply” cut education costs without undermining our kids.

I support moving away from property to fund schools, simplifying the system, and a real public dialogue to learn what Vermonters think about the issues facing schools. Education is among our best investments in our kids and our economy. Good education means better jobs, higher incomes and a stronger economy.

Our schools do a good job, are often the heart of a community, and most decisions about

them are best left to local people. We can examine mandates, support cooperation among   schools (not forced consolidation) and cut health care costs. Legitimate concerns over school taxes are tied to the fact that most Vermonters’ incomes are lower today than 10 years ago, while costs of everything—for families and schools—are higher. We must encourage better jobs and incomes to better support our families and schools.