Tuesday January 15, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- A Bennington County senator is proposing a supermajority vote be required to ratify school budgets that increase spending.

"No control mechanism"

The bill, S.10, proposed by Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, would require any school budget that contains higher education spending than the prior year to receive two-thirds voter approval in order to be adopted. The bill, Hartwell said, is an attempt to control the ever-increasing cost of education in Vermont even as enrollment continues to decline.

"There seems to be no control mechanism of spending at all. We are seeing lots of budgets that are 4, 5, 6 percent increases in spending. That is totally unsustainable going forward," the fourth-term senator from Dorset said in an interview Monday. "I don't see enough discipline here. I see fewer and fewer kids and more and more spending."

The bill has yet to be assigned to a committee, where Hartwell said he expects it may get tweaked to require a two-thirds majority when the increase is greater than a certain amount, such as the cost of inflation. Ultimately, Hartwell said he would like to see a supermajority requirement with any spending increase.

Hartwell said he is not familiar with any similar proposals introduced in previous legislative sessions in Vermont, although he said his bill it is not unlike what some other states have in place.


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In Massachusetts, for instance, Proposition 2 1/2 has capped municipal property tax increases at 2.5 percent each year since going into effect in 1982.

S.10 would play a role in budgets statewide, with local districts being no exception. The largest district in the county, Mount Anthony Union, is looking at a 6 percent increase in its latest budget draft. At Shaftsbury School District a budget with a 15 percent increase is on the table.

Education officials often explain there is little that can be done to avoid budget increases because of federal mandates and contracted increases, but Hartwell believes the school boards can do more to control costs without hurting education.

"It's always easier to blame the feds and blame the contracts, but they are the ones negotiating the contracts," Hartwell said.

"It's a discipline issue and it's very easy to pass off the responsibility for this," Hartwell said. "The other states are doing this and I think we have to do this."

The immediate reaction from people opposed to the bill, Hartwell said, will likely be that maintaining flat budgets will hurt education. Using Massachusetts as an example, which is recognized at the top or near the top in annual public education rankings, Hartwell said there are ways to control spending while maintaining the high quality education Vermont has.

In Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, which includes school districts in Bennington and the surrounding towns, just one of the six school district budgets is likely to be flat in fiscal year 2014. Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke said local school districts approved nearly flat budgets three years in a row prior to last year and there is no place left to reduce spending. Pembroke said he understands the intent behind the bill and the need to control costs but he is not sure what impact such a law would have.

"I don't know what threat a two-thirds majority would place on the board," Pembroke said.

If it did tempt school boards to cut more, Pembroke said the result would be a loss of staff.

"To have no expenditure increase whatsoever, you're just going to cut staff. That's all there is. Staff is 80 percent of your budget," he said.

Another potential impact could be taking pay increases off the table when it came time to negotiate contracts, which Pembroke said would likely result in more strikes around the state.

Hartwell pointed to statistics that the student population in Vermont has been declining since the early 1990s yet the number of personnel statewide continued increasing every year until 2009. "There are an awful lot of people embedded in the system," he said.

Hartwell expects the bill will likely get into the Education Committee and may make its way to the Finance Committee, of which Hartwell is a member.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi