Statewide school budget re-vote garners little support Politics in Covid response, says teachers' union

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Facing an enormous shortfall in the state education fund that needs to be addressed, the Scott administration put a suggestion on the table last Thursday that seemed to be a non-starter with members of the House Ways and Means committee, some of whom said it would lead to chaos.

Finance and Management Commissioner Adam Greshin tells the House Ways and Means Committee that Vermont’s school budgets should be re-voted

Representing the administration, Adam Greshin, commissioner of finance and management, told the committee that as a “budget guy” the budget gap was too wide to solve with additional revenue and that he could “just see no way of avoiding looking at the spending side.” Greshin then suggested that school districts throughout the state re-vote their budgets.

Noting that both would require legislation to carry them out, Greshin spelled out two options. “First,” he said, “as commissioner of finance I could set the education payments. That would have the state determine what we will send to districts.” In other words, the administration would set aside all of the voter approved budgets and decide on an amount that it would pay schools.

“I would suggest the more democratic approach,” Greshin continued. “We could ask districts to re-vote their budgets later in the summer … once the dust settles and we have a better handle on the revenue and the allowable uses for the coronavirus relief funds.”

Greshin said that districts could adopt — or the state could mandate they use — a “skinny” budget based on last year’s budget, with districts locking in a full year budget in the late summer or early fall.

While committee members asked whether it was possible to use federal funds — like the CARES act — to close the gap, Greshin said it was possible, but to depend on that when such use has not yet been established is “the definition of aspirational budgeting.”

Education budget analyst Mark Perrault asked why the teacher’s union would reopen contracts

Noting that with 80 percent of school expenses are salaries and benefits, that the statewide teacher contracts are closed and that the date has passed to notify teachers of a “reduction in force” under their contracts, Mark Perrault, senior fiscal analyst with the  Joint Fiscal Office, said that school boards really have very little room to cut unless they can get the unions to renegotiate their contracts.

“If the school boards can’t make substantial reduction in their budgets, what’s the point of going through that exercise?” asked Perrault. “It’s very little money that school boards can cut from their budgets unless the teachers’ union is willing to come back and completely renegotiate for 2021. Why would teachers respond?”

AOE Secretary Dan French suggested that political pressure could be brought to bear to get the teachers’ union to renegotiate

“To  help sustain the viability of their system,” replied Education Secretary Dan French, adding that such issues need to be”sorted out in the local context.” He gave the example that “if the choice becomes the closing of a school to navigate the budget versus salary increases” voters understand the context. He also said that political pressure on teachers could help to get them to renegotiate. But, asked if he thought contracts should be re-negotiated, French said he would leave that up to local decision-makers.

One month earlier, French had told a joint meeting of  the Senate Finance and Education Committees that, “Someone’s going to have to do some borrowing to fill the hole.” At that time French said, “We can envision … the state doing some borrowing, districts doing some borrowing and local municipalities doing some short term borrowing to fulfill their obligations to cover education payments.”

“This is all for show,” said Darren Allen, who is communications director for the Vermont National Education Association, the union representing teachers and school staff members. “It’s the first major intrusion of politics into the administration’s Covid-19 response.” Allen said that the negotiations are done in cycles and the NEA is willing to negotiate going forward, but not on settled contracts. “We agree with Sen. Phil Baruth, this idea is ‘dumb’,” said Allen in an interview on Tuesday.

House Education Committee chair Kate Webb said a re-vote would add to the chaos already around the schools

“I am extraordinarily skeptical about this even being feasible,” said Rep. George Till of Jericho. “There’s absolutely no way we can get these things re-voted, get contracts renegotiated and settled at a different rate and it’s going to add infinitely more chaos in the system than we have right now.”

“Speaking as the chair of the (House) Education Committee,” said Rep. Kate Webb of Shelburne, “one of the things we are observing is the need for some kind of stability for schools going forward. We’ve had incredible chaos this year.  The concept of sending voters back to re-vote budgets instead of stabilizing, contributes to even more chaos.” Webb called the chaos in the districts that have not yet approved budgets “palpable.”

Asked about the proposal at his Friday press conference, Scott said, “We’re not going to spend our way out of this. We’re not going to tax our way out of this. We have to come up with other alternatives and I don’t know what they are. This was a starting point, a brainstorming session.”

But Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Janet Ancel told The Telegraph that she had invited members of the administration not so much to brainstorm, but “to be at the table” for the budget discussion.

“If this is a brainstorm, it’s a storm that needs to pass,” said Allen.

The logistics behind the ‘re-vote’ option

The administration’s proposal comes with a lot to work out in a short amount of time and within the limits of public health directives stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. Among these are when a vote would be held, how it would be done, how much it will cost and what the result would mean.

The House Ways and Means Committee, and guests discuss the idea of a re-vote

A primary election is already scheduled for Aug. 11, so to hold the school budget vote on the same day would require public notice by Friday, July 10 at the latest. A printed budget would need to be available for voters to inspect, which could move the deadline for an actual budget back to the beginning of July. Mailing the budget would be an additional expense for the school district. And the cost of mailing additional ballots for those who would opt not to vote in person would fall on the town.

So, under the administration’s proposal, each school district and each supervisory union board would have to ask the teachers’ union to renegotiate its contract and find whatever other savings it could.

To hold these re-votes, state statutes would have to be amended. So while school boards could begin work on new budgets, they would not know that voting would definitely occur until the legislature amended the statutes.

If that timeline is too tight, there could be a special vote in September but that would add the cost of another election – including mail-in ballots – to town budgets and bring on in-person voting at the time when many epidemiologists are predicting a second wave of infections.

What would the votes mean?

If such a re-vote were taken, what would it mean? For example, if a school board proposed a lower budget but voters rejected it, would the already-adopted budget stand or would the schools  be without a budget?

“That’s something that would have to be set out in the legislation,” said House Ways and Means Committee chair Ancel.

Secretary of State Jim Condos, whose office is responsible for administering elections in Vermont, agreed. In an email to The Telegraph he wrote: “Due to the lack of clarity around this question, our suggestion would be that any legislation calling for a revote of school budgets would need to answer this question directly, for instance clearly stating that if the revised budget is voted down the district would revert to the one it had adopted previously.”

“Our best advice,” wrote Condos, “is to make it clear by voting to rescind the previous one and then voters adopt a new one. That leaves the risk of having no budget in place if you rescind the first and then the revised one is voted down.”

But in the final analysis, Condos is not a fan of the proposal.

“We do not think it is a good idea to ask every school district in the state to re-vote their budgets right now,” wrote Condos.

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  1. Arlene Mutschler says:

    Tell me, please, why there is a problem? Schools have been closed for 3 months and will remain closed till perhaps September. So you have not had to light any schools, or barely heat? I HOPE someone has turned down the thermostats in the empty schools. Emptied refrigerators and turned them off. Are non-essential employees being paid, admin staff, principal, etc? They should not be! Are ALL teachers teaching on-line classes? PE? coaches? Or I guess the union is holding the state hostage? Buses aren’t running. Enrollment declines every year and yet taxes go up? There is a serious problem here. Taxes go up, people leave, less revenue. I’ve lived here 10 yrs and my taxes have DOUBLED! and 80% of my tax dollar is going for wages and benefits? really?? Something very wrong.

  2. Stacia Spaulding says:

    What in the (expletive deleted) does “political pressure on teachers” mean?

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