Our opinion: School budget re-vote poses more questions than it answers

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One of the more curious aspects of Gov. Phil Scott's first two terms in office has been his administration's willingness to suggest ideas late in the Legislative calendar.

Some ideas resulted in compromises on tax relief. Some made sense on paper, but lacked specifics or were proposed too late.

Some seem intended as a political statement rather than a policy proposal. Case in point: Department of Finance and Management Commissioner Adam Greshin suggested last week that every school district reconsider its school district budget, citing massive revenue shortfalls from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Education Fund deficit has risen to an alarming $160 million and counting as of this writing. The argument goes that with so many people out of work and tax collections plunging, school districts ought to revisit spending plans approved before anyone knew the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression was about to strike.

But all kinds of practical questions arise, with few good answers. What about the COVID-19 health implications of public meetings and voting?

Would administrators and boards be able to set new budgets on short notice?

How would districts address collectively bargained raises or benefit changes that have already taken effect? Would a re-vote include tuition rates for independent schools?

Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said it is reasonable for school districts to look at spending. But the proposal "on its face seems to have legal, logistical and practical problems," he said. State Senate Education Committee Chairman Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) was less charitable. He called it "the first genuinely dumb idea that the administration has put forward during the [COVID-19] emergency."

While school budget re-votes stand little chance of actually happening, the Education Fund shortfall is real. A deficit of $160 million is considerable, and school districts will face difficult choices in the coming year.

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