Thursday, December 29, 2005

Getting schooled

Costs are going up. Way up.

Whether it's health insurance, electricity, fuel heating — across the board, things are not getting any cheaper. To say the same about the Stowe school budget would be the understatement of the New Year.

In an article this week, reporter Marina Knight takes a look at the upcoming year's spending proposal, and finds a budget slated to be over $8 million. That's compared with a $7.66 million budget last year that — for the first time ever — got rejected at town meeting by voters.

Most startingly, perhaps, is that the budget basically includes the same programs, services and staff as last year. Most of the increase — over $500K of it — comes in hikes for pay and benefits, special education, heat and electric and fuel. The school board is faced with the dire prospect of slashing programs and services in order to get a passable budget.

All of this points to brewing unrest in Stowe over Act 68, the state's education funding formula. Some folks in town think next year will see more advocacy for local control over property taxes and further Act 68 reform. Many in Stowe see the state policy as pitting "town against town over the school funding issue," creating a kind of class warfare between "rich and poor" communities. Whether or not that's the case, that's certainly the perception. In Stowe, residents are seeing a school population decrease even as per-pupil spending goes up, budgets go up, and services are cut back.

There's little hope that the Act 68 reform proposed for the upcoming legislative session — an education income tax — will go anywhere at all. Democrats, who are generally the defenders of Act 68 policy, have already said they're not much of a chance of the education income tax getting a fair shake this year. Certainly with health care and affordable housing topping the list, education funding reform has taken the backseat.

That's too bad for Stowe, and other communities that feel left behind by the state government. So, the stage is set for another contentious school budget, and another round of touch choices. Perhaps Montpelier will feel the heat as a result ... we'll see.

— Scott Monroe

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