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The Burlington Free Press - Candidates Divided on School Spending

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The Burlington Free Press - Candidates Divided on School Spending

Nancy Remsen

When Vermont's three high-profile gubernatorial candidates spar over education, it's all about the money rather than other traditionally hot button issues such as school vouchers or testing.

The focus is on money because the number of students in public schools has declined while school spending has increased, and the expense falls on the property tax, a payment mechanism that Vermonters love to hate.

Since 2003, the year Republican Gov. Jim Douglas took office, school enrollment has declined by 5,765 students while total education spending has increased by $291 million.

Although voters approved the school budgets that drove the increases in their property taxes, they have also complained about the skyrocketing cost of schools -- and politicians listened in 2007. Douglas put a package of cost controls on the table, the House and Senate offered other ideas, the administration and lawmakers clashed, then compromised in the final hours of the legislative session.

The controversial compromise established a two-vote requirement on certain school budgets. If school districts spend more than the statewide average per student and want to increase their budgets by a rate higher than inflation plus one percentage point, they must split their budgets and seek voter approval on both pieces. One vote covers spending up to inflation plus one percentage point. The second vote covers the additional proposed spending. The two-vote requirement takes effect on school budgets proposed this winter.

The views that Douglas, Democrat Gaye Symington and independent Anthony Pollina hold about the two-vote requirement have become a defining difference among the three when they talk about education.

Douglas supports the two-vote requirement. Symington supported the compromise at first, but has since changed her mind and wants to repeal it. Pollina called it a bad idea from the beginning.

Let's do it

When Douglas ran for this third term as governor in 2006, he made affordability his theme. Once re-elected, he delivered to the Legislature in January 2007 a package of proposals that included tools to screw a lid on the steep growth in school spending.

His primary proposal would have limited the increase in school budgets to 4 percent the first year and 3.5 percent for each of the following four years -- unless 60 percent of the local voters supported exceeding the cap. Lawmakers and education advocates condemned the cap noting it punished frugal districts and rewarded high-spending districts.

Douglas was adamant about having some kind of cost control enacted in 2007. In tense talks during the last days of the session, he and legislative leaders -- including his current rival Symington -- came up with the two-vote compromise. Douglas and Symington sat side-by-side for the signing on June 11, 2007.

Last winter, when the House voted to repeal the two-vote requirement and replace it with a different spending penalty, Douglas objected. The Senate let repeal die, but Douglas has made clear he would fight future attempts to break the deal.

"The two-vote law will provide taxpayers an important tool to check spending in their communities, which will help moderate the property tax burden," notes a statement from his campaign.

Douglas hasn't offered other proposals to curb school spending or ease the property tax burden during the campaign, but his campaign aides say he is exploring other changes and would present proposals as part of his next budget -- if re-elected.

New view

Symington admits that she once supported the two-vote compromise, then changed her mind. Her new view came after intense lobbying by the teachers union and other education advocacy groups and a more thorough evaluation by the House Education Committee.

She concluded, she said, that the two-vote requirement would confuse voters. Still, she forced the House Education Committee to come up with a replacement cost-control mechanism before she would allow the repeal bill to come to the floor.

The spotlight on budget control mechanisms, Symington has said during her campaign, has been a "distraction" from the real drivers of school budget increases. She would prefer to focus on reducing health care expenses and fuel costs for schools.

"And governance has to be part of this discussion," she adds. By governance, she means the number of school boards and school districts in the state.

As governor, she said she would go out to communities to talk about more efficient ways to operate schools. She would advocate incentives, not a Montpelier-imposed consolidation plan.

"Gov. Douglas sits back," Symington charged. "He has done nothing actively to help make that happen," she said of talks about the costs and benefits of school consolidations. "I think we could make a lot more progress."

A bad idea

Pollina won the endorsement of the state teachers' union earlier this fall and praise Thursday from the vice president of the National Education Association for his strong and longstanding opposition to the two-vote requirement.

"Anthony alone among the three leading candidates absolutely is opposed to the dangerous two-vote mandate," said Angelo Dorta, president of the union, in explaining the Vermont NEA's selection in September. "We are heartened by his pledge to make repeal of the provision a top priority of his administration."

Pollina has argued that the two-vote requirement would undermine local control. He calls the two-vote law "a solution looking for a problem."

Voters can defeat budgets they consider too rich now, he said. "I think Vermonters believe that we have high quality schools and schools are important and that is why most school budgets are successful."

In looking for ways to cut costs, Pollina said, "we can talk about consolidation of administration."

If the goal is to reduce the burden of the property tax, Pollina advocates "a real specific conversation" about switching from the property tax to an income tax -- for homeowners. Although income taxes react more dramatically to changes in the economy than property taxes, Pollina argues paying based on income is fairer to the average taxpayer.

He would expect commercial and vacation properties to continue to pay an education property tax.

Pollina charges that Douglas has refused to entertain the topic. Yet, Pollina said, "No matter where I go, people want to talk about moving away from property taxes to pay for education."

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