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In News Conference, Shumlin Jabs School Budgets, And New Jersey

As local school boards put the finishing touches on the budget proposals they’ll put before voters in March, Gov. Peter Shumlin continues to push for austerity from afar.

After telling Vermonters in his budget address last week to closely scrutinize spending proposals on Town Meeting Day, Shumlin used his weekly press conference to reinforce the message.

Asked by reporters how he can tell school boards to keep costs down when his own state budget proposal for next year exceeds the rate of inflation, Shumlin said that’s “easy.”

“If I had a 20 percent reduction in my caseload at the Agency of Human Services, I could lay people off and reduce my budgets. But I don’t,” Shumlin said Wednesday. “What the school boards are looking at, and what we’re looking at for property tax payers, is a caseload that’s dropped 20 percent – 20 percent.”

Shumlin was referring to declining enrollment in public schools over the past decade, a phenomenon he says demands more spending restraint in local schools. Republicans have laid blame for rising property tax rates at the feet of a statewide education financing system they say has disconnected voters from the financial consequences of votes on local budgets.

Shumlin said he’ll consider changes to Act 68, the school funding law. But he said a focus on the funding formula directs attention away from the real culprit: local spending levels.

“It’s not a secret to anybody that we’ve got more administration, that we’ve got more bureaucracy, and that we’ve got among the highest per-pupil spending in the country. So the answer now is not more money,” Shumlin said. “The answer is when you’ve got a 20-percent reduction in your student count, which we do in this state … is how can we find efficiencies so that property taxpayers don’t keep getting kicked in the teeth?”

Shumlin said he “isn’t criticizing” local school boards, or the voters who approve their budgets.

***

The last few weeks have been difficult ones for the governor of New Jersey. But you won’t find Peter Shumlin piling on. Though Chris Christie serves as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and Shumlin the head of the Democratic equivalent, Shumlin stayed mum today when asked about Christie’s spiraling political woes.

“To be candid, I’m too busy being governor to spend too much time thinking about what’s happening in New Jersey,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin allowed that he’d “read a few” stories about the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, and the alleged use of federal Hurricane Sandy relief money to coerce the mayor of Hoboken into supporting a proposed development plan.

But, he said, “I’m going stay out of the conversation about what’s going on in New Jersey or anywhere else.”

Which isn’t to say Shumlin didn’t have some choice words for the Garden State itself.

“I got to tell you, of all the places that I’d want to live in the world, New Jersey’s at the bottom of the list,” Shumlin said. “So I don’t pay too much attention to it.”

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