Let’s talk about schools now, not in January

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One of the complaints from the last legislative session was that legislators were not properly notified as to the challenges facing our school system and what the Phil Scott administration intended to do. The governor and legislative leaders should make it a goal not to have the same thing said of them next session.

The issues have not moderated. In fact, they are more challenging now than they were a year ago. We have already been told to expect a six to eight cent increase in our property taxes, and that doesn’t include the expected costs of higher health insurance, which, depending on the plan, will increase anywhere from 10 percent to 17 percent.

The reasons for the warned-about property tax increase are multiple. The education fund has been depleted of its reserves – largely because of the need to use one time money to meet budget needs and to keep property taxes low[er]. And by law it’s required that there be a cash reserve of between 3.5 percent and 5 percent.

That just for starters.

It’s been a tough time to be on a school board; they are the ones charting a new course for how education is being delivered through Act 46, the school consolidation bill. They are still catching up with the requirements/opportunities posed with the flexible pathways law. They have the on-going struggles with special education, addiction issues, and increased levels of poverty.

To add to that, they are the ones negotiating contracts with their teachers. And it’s not been going all that well for a number of the school boards. They are mismatched when it comes to the skill and perseverance of teachers and the Vermont NEA.

This fear was expressed in the last part of the legislative session when the governor sought to negotiate health care contacts for teachers as a single group. Savings of up to $75 million were possible without teachers losing benefits are having their costs increased.

The governor’s effort failed, with opponents doubting the savings, advocates pushing to protect the sanctity of collective bargaining, and the governor running out of time.

But we’re starting to see the proof of which the governor warned.

Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, put it succinctly: “We had an opportunity to not just see onetime savings, but a new type of benefit that is more sustainable than we currently have. The results [of the contracts negotiated, show that opportunity has been lost. The NEA had no interest in establishing a new norm, so it hasn’t happened.”

The cost of that failure is estimated to be around $20 million. Despite the fact that we lost a thousand students last year, and that we will lose another thousand students this year, and that we’ve already lost roughly 25,000 students since 1997, we continue to look at educational costs that have gone up, not down.

That’s more than frustrating to the average Vermonter.

All challenges have answers. There is no reason, other than the lack of political will, that progress is beyond our reach. But the environment in which these challenges are addressed matters. This is not a January conversation. It’s not a subject that works well when surprise “answers” are unveiled at the last moment. And it’s not an issue that can be addressed when the information is only partially understood.

We are in the early days of October, three months from the legislative session’s opening. That time should be used to explain fully what the challenges are and what the options could be. Publically. If we forfeit this time to allow for more entrenched political posturing, then shame on us; we have no reason to expect the results to be anything other than what they are.

Emerson Lynn is editor/publisher of the St. Albans Messenger and is co-publisher of the Colchester Sun.