Budget Standoff Has Ended, But Philosophical Clash Over Education Spending Remains
The dispute between Gov. Phil Scott and legislative leaders over property tax rates went on for weeks, and while the governor announced Monday he'll let the latest state budget pass without his signature, there are some who believe the fight was about much more than money and tax rates.
They think it's about who will control future education policies: local school boards or the state?
Throughout his first term in office Scott has talked about the need to "better manage" the money that Vermont spends on K-12 education.
Scott says current spending levels aren't sustainable because costs have skyrocketed over the past 20 years while student enrollment has dropped roughly 20 percent.
The governor has a five-year plan that he says will reduce education costs by several hundred million dollars.
The plan includes finding ways to increase student-to-staff ratios, imposing new penalties on high-spending towns, creating a statewide health care contract for teachers and implementing new special education policies.
Retired Middlebury College political science professor Eric Davis said the stalemate over property taxes highlights a basic philosophical difference between Scott and the Democrats. The issue is how key changes in education policy should be implemented — and what role the state should play.
"The governor, and even more so people on his staff, would like to see a centralization of those decisions in Montpelier," Davis said. "I think many of them would like over time to see some of the small schools around the state close, and they'd like the decisions on that sort of thing to be made by the Legislature passing a bill that in effect gives locally elected school boards very little choice."
Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin said there's no question that the stalemate was directly related to the debate about greater state oversight of education spending.
"It is clearly about more than money, and there is a philosophical divide here ... The governor feels very strongly that we need to have a more management role, a more active role in managing the education fund," he said.
"It is clearly about more than money, and there is a philosophical divide here." — Adam Greshin, Department of Finance and Management commissioner
Greshin said the Scott administration has no interest in micromanaging local decisions, but it does need to take steps to make school spending more sustainable in the future.
"We have no interest in making decisions about individual budget items, we have no interest in making decisions about which school stays open and which school stays closed," Greshin said. "Those are local decisions, but we do have an interest from a statewide level of having a more active role in managing what is our largest single pool of money."
Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, disagrees with Greshin's conclusion that it's the proper role for state government to "better manage" education spending.
"Frankly that's not the state's role to do," Mace said. "The only way the state can guarantee level tax rates is to take direct control over school spending decisions."
And Mace said there needs to be a lot more debate over the administration's policies.
"If that's the role that the governor is interested in having the state take on," Mace said, "I think that's a very different policy discussion and political discussion to have with Vermonters than 'I'm here to keep your taxes level.'"