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Gov. Scott wants more state control over school spending

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(The Center Square) — Vermont Gov. Phil Scott wants the state to exert more control over school spending after more than two dozen school districts voted down local budgets in the face of double-digit property tax increases.

Speaking to reporters during his weekly briefing on Thursday, Scott said the failure of 30 school budgets on Town Meeting Day suggests that the state needs to consider pulling back some local control over school spending.

The four-term Republican said he knows the move wouldn’t be “popular” but said it “has to be on the table” given the message sent by Vermont voters this week.

“I know going back to the drawing board won’t be easy for school boards and administrators, and identifying tools for help has proven to be not that easy for our legislative members, either,” he told reporters. “But given how rare these ‘no’ votes are, this should be a wake-up call for everyone.”

Nearly a third of Vermont’s school budgets were shot down by voters this week — the highest rate of no-votes in a decade, according to the Vermont Superintendents Association.

The Vermont Department of Taxes has estimated an 18.5% rise in property taxes next year, driven by a 12% increase in education costs. This includes teachers’ wages and health care benefits, rising costs for school building upgrades and funding for special education and mental health services.

Under the projected rate hikes, the actual average homestead property tax rate will have a tax bill increase from $1.54 for every $100 of property value in the current fiscal year to $1.80 in the fiscal year 2025, which begins July 1, 2024, according to the tax office.

If the proposed increases go through, property taxes on a $250,000 home in Vermont would increase by about $650 in the next fiscal year, according to the Tax Department.

Scott signed a bill two weeks ago aimed at softening the blow by repealing an often-criticized property tax cap and allowing local school boards to delay budget votes in an attempt to lower education spending and property taxes.

How many school districts, if any, delayed votes on their budgets is unclear.

The state already spends about $2.1 billion to educate around 83,000 students, meaning $25,000 is spent on each child. Scott said that only New York State spends more on education than Vermont, yet it has more people and a larger economy.

Scott claimed that despite what the state spends on teaching kids, Vermont students only perform “in the middle of the pack” compared to other states, citing U.S. Department of Education data.

“Some may think that spending more than nearly every other state on education is a good thing, and in many cases it would be, but there are a few reasons why this spending is concerning,” he said.

Scott took aim at the Democratic-controlled Legislature for rejecting his cost containment proposals, like staff-to-student ratios, and adjusting Vermont’s education property tax. He said lawmakers have also ceded too much power to teachers unions, contributing to rising school costs.

“They didn’t do it the way we’d asked,” he said Thursday. “They did it a different way, and I think it’s actually creating more harm than good.”

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