In my earlier post, The Challenges of Public School Funding: Part 2, I wrote about how our current property-tax based education funding system works in Vermont. This legislative session, there have been two ideas floated about how to change our funding system from property-tax based to income-tax based. I’ve spoken in two Ward 5 candidate forums (Ward 5 NPA and Channel 17 – link coming) about issues that have been highlighted by policy analysts with switching to an income-tax based model. Today, Paul Cillo, President and Executive Director of the Public Assets Institute, a Vermont nonprofit that conducts research and fiscal analysis, disseminates information, and develops and advances policies that state government can enact on a variety of topic areas including healthcare, taxes, education, and family economic security, issued a letter to the House Ways and Means Committee.
The House Ways and Means Committee has been working on the issue of education funding this session but has not released a detailed proposal of what the new system may look like. Based on the information available, Paul Cillo submitted this letter (PDF) outlining concerns and commentary, which were summarized with this statement: “Based on our analysis of the currently available information, we conclude that the proposal under consideration in the committee does not advance these principles better than the existing system. In fact, we believe it would set the system back.”
This is an issue we all need to keep a close eye on. I will do my best to keep you all updated here on my website.
Last night’s school board meeting was supposed to be about passing a FY19 budget that avoided direct instructional cuts to our children, particularly those needing the most support. We started out hearing more public comment about the need to keep interventionists in our elementary schools because we need to continue to work on closing the achievement gap, one of the district’s top strategic goals. Important discussion ensued about the the very new, and clearly formative, plan for interventionists that was revealed at Monday night’s board meeting, one that has not even been discussed with school district principals yet. Ultimately, it was determined that no cuts should be made to interventionists or three elementary school teacher positions (athletics at BHS had been added back in Monday night), yet the total dollars don’t add up to the original proposed cuts for these nine positions, but that’s for another post. In the end, the board approved a budget with a per pupil spend of $15,111.81, which represents less than 1% growth for our district, or approximately .8% increase in spending. The remaining tax increase of 7.19% comes from actions taken by Montpelier that are outside our control, for a total tax increase of 7.99%. A final budget number will be out later.
This is important news. We have a budget to pass and lots of work to do explaining why Burlington taxpayers are facing a nearly 8% property tax increase while emphasizing that we have to pass this budget to support our schools. We need this money to support our students, to enhance equity and diversity in our staff and training to match our diverse student population, to increase professional development for teachers, to add social worker support at the middle school level, and much more. If we weren’t facing the financial pressures from Montpelier think of how much more we could be doing that we NEED to do.
Unfortunately, the news today isn’t about the budget. The news is about board chair Mark Porter’s abuse of power, bullying of another school board member, and actions unbecoming to an elected official. His words and actions spoke volumes about not only himself, but the current board and structure. His divisive statement last night was an attempt to further cement the divide between school board and superintendent against those dedicated professionals working in our district. Everyone was under attack, from teachers to paraeducators, spouses of those working in the district, residents who are teachers working outside the district, parents with children in the district, and the families of Burlington’s children who want a voice in the school district. No one was immune. Practically everyone was labeled as the enemy. In fact, Porter said, “We must silence and overcome these voices.” Last time I checked, we were still living in a democracy where voices, discussion, and opinions were not only allowed under the first amendment but welcomed, apparently not by the current school board. The role of the school board is to represent the taxpayers, parents of children in the district, employees of the district, and to hear their concerns, address them, communicate with them, not shut them down and only hear what they want to hear or respond to what they want to respond to.
I chose to speak out against Mark Porter last night because we have to call out bullying when we see it. My work in school and campus safety doesn’t allow me to sit by and allow anyone to be a target – not Jeff Wick, not teachers or paras, not students of color, LGBTQ students, ANYONE. I don’t care who you are. A bully is a bully. I’ve been in my own daughter’s classroom to talk about bullying, to talk about how everyone can be a change maker and stop bullying. We need to exemplify that behavior every day and practice bystander intervention. I felt I did that last night. I would do it again. Elected officials have no business acting or speaking the way Mark Porter did last night.
We need to stand up for what’s right and decent in our society and our community. We need to come together and strengthen our school district not divide it. We do that by embracing each other and having awkward and difficult discussions around race, privilege, sexual harassment and assault, bullying, disabilities, and many other tough topics. Let’s not adopt the national narrative of building walls against each other. We are so much better than that.
Morning All. Another long school board budget meeting last night at Hunt. (Full disclosure, I missed the first 30 minutes of public comment due to an earlier commitment). Here is the full presentation (PDF) from last night.
– A large number of public speakers came out in support of the alpine skiing program at BHS, and some for golf. This included current students participating in the sports, parents of current and former children that have/had participated, etc.
– Interventionists came to advocate for their positions in the schools, why their work is so vital, how many students they touch during the day, etc.
– One teacher spoke and debated the point that there are 4.0 FTE PE teachers at BHS. She says there are only 3 and BHS would be reduced to 2 with the proposed cut there, making it more difficult to serve all students including EL students. PE is a graduation requirement and there is finally some movement on giving credit to students participating in varsity, and possibly JV, sports.
During Board Reflections, Liz Curry said that the Public Assets Institute (PAI) noted in a meeting in Montpelier earlier on Monday that 6 cents of the increase we’re seeing this year has to do with four factors that are completely out of Burlington’s control. No further detail was given but we should be able to find more detail from PAI. Paul Cillo, the president of PAI, also gave testimony to the Senate Education Committee on January 19th on education funding and Act 60/68. In addition, a board member highlights the increased burden on taxpayers to fund public education. When Act 60 was established in 1997, 55% of money in the education fund came from property taxes. Now that number has risen to 67%.
The survey results were reviewed but unfortunately they are not included in the official board presentation. Here are some key points (please keep in mind this was a self-selecting survey so it is not statistically significant, nor representative of Burlington by Ward) – Also, if anything is slightly off, my apologies, I was writing furiously!
– There were a total of 366 respondents, 219 left comments
– Some outreach was done to seniors via hard copy surveys
– The majority of respondents were aged 35-44 (37%), followed by those 45-54. All age brackets were represented.
– Majority of respondents were elementary school parents (55%), followed by middle school parents (18%), and high school parents (16.7%)
-Ward 5 had the highest response rate at 30%, but all wards were represented. (THANK YOU WARD 5!!)
– 51% of respondents said they would support a budget with enhancements and incentives greater than 7%, 19% said they would support a budget at 7%, and 29.5% would support a budget below 7%.
There was a great deal of discussion around athletics and future work that needs to happen here. Essentially, the district has made cuts to academics and almost every other area but athletics. What has not happened with athletics is a top to bottom look at how athletics works in our district in terms of inclusion and creating true student athletes. How do we engage all families and students? Superintendent Obeng also spoke about his desire to make athletics an elementary through high school experience. This is sure to be a larger discussion and examination in the future. Ultimately, skiing and golf are back in the budget. This was only 20K which is less than one-tenth of a percent of the overall budget.
Interventionists and Class Sizes
Stephanie Phillips, Senior Director of Curriculum, and Victor Prussack, Assistant to Director of Curriculum, joined the meeting to talk about these two issues. Stephanie spoke directly about what the original plan was for interventionists in the district and what has actually transpired.
She went on to describe next steps and what the district’s new interventionist model would look like keeping 6 or more interventionists on staff. This model had never been revealed to the board before last night and there was clearly some uncertainty around it and making a decision based on such new information.
Some questions arose such as what happens while we transition to this new model, particularly at the 4/5 level? That hasn’t been fully fleshed out. It may be that those needing intervention at that level get it through the after school program or other outside interventionists. Also, no deep dive has been done on how many staff it would actually take to implement this model because we don’t know how many students/minutes per day/per school etc. There was some discussion about using the behavior coaches at the 4/5/6 level in the interim since at 7th grade students switch to PLPs. It seemed clear that this plan was in a formative stage and many questions remain. Several board members either didn’t understand the model at all or said they needed time to absorb or “digest” it.
On class sizes, Victor explained what he does for the district including projections on class sizes, where consolidations can be made within a given grade due to normal fluctuations, what the K sizes and number of classrooms are needed each year in each school, recommended staffing allocation based on enrollment and also on the district’s school equity index that takes into account free and reduced lunch and EL student populations. Next year, we have low class sizes in 11 grades across the elementary schools and could potentially consolidate or reduce 7.0 FTE. Looking at it closer and to have the least impact, the decision was made to go with the three recommendations at Smith, Flynn, and SA. Also, by reducing these three positions, it does not put these schools teacher ratios out of line with the other elementary schools (again, this is not my opinion, I’m just reporting on what was presented).
I think the most interesting piece here was learning that even if these three teaching positions are re-instated, they will not necessarily go back to Smith, SA, and Flynn. As Mr. Obeng said, these teachers would be placed based on need or “hot spots” and that will be determined by principals across the district. When concerns were brought up about larger class sizes contributing to achievement gaps it was mentioned that the achievement gaps are the highest at IAA, SA, and Champlain.
So from a budget perspective we’re looking at several scenarios, and options in between. We started here last week:
Tax increase: 6.92% based on the cuts proposed and enhancements added in. For taxpayers this is $287 on a $231K home (this is the number going forward for all options)
Option 1 – add back 3 teaching positions: Tax rate 7.32%; tax impact $303
Option 2 – add back 6 teaching positions: Tax rate 7.68%; tax impact $318
Option 3: Add back 9 teaching positions; Tax rate 8.05%; tax impact 8.05%
From here there was a lot of comment and questions from the board. A couple overarching themes in questions were concerns about the new intervention plan and needing to make reductions to the enhancements, which has not been done yet (so far there has only been other funding sources found for some items).
A reminder, that the board has the right to change these options and say, “we’d like to add 7 teaching positions, and cut these enhancements from the list and table them for next year.” Nothing has been voted on yet. That’s for tonight’s meeting.
Thanks for reading and reach out with any questions!
- Senior Director of IT
- Grounds Foreman
- Principal Substitute
- Additional operational budget restructuring
- 1.0 FTE Business class
- 1.0 FTE PE (reduces from 4 to 3 teachers)
- 1.0 FTE at Burlington Technical College
- Golf and Alpine Skiing
- 1 FTE at Flynn for 2nd grade (2 teachers can serve the 44 incoming students, this would put the ration at 22 students in each class, the AOE maximum)
- 1 FTE at SA for 1st and 2nd grade (reducing teachers from 4 to 3; 3 teachers serving 60 students)
- 1 FTE at Smith for 5th grade (3 to 2 teachers; 2 teachers for 46 students. The AOE max for this grade level is 25 per class)
Let’s Talk about Acts 60 and 68
Act 60 was enacted in 1997, following the Vermont Supreme Court’s (VSC) decision in Brigham vs. State of Vermont. In Brigham, the VSC ruled that our educational funding system was unconstitutional because it allowed students in towns with higher property values to receive more money per pupil than towns with lower property values. To address this inequity, Act 60 was drafted and passed by the Vermont legislature. Act 60 established a state education fund whereby local property taxes are sent to the state and then distributed to each town based on a funding formula. Some inadequacies were discovered in Act 60, so Acts 68 (2003) and 130 addressed some of those issues. This resulted in the current funding structure we have today.
The education funding formula used by Vermont is what is known as a weighted formula. To keep things simple there are three primary factors that go into the formula:
- Average daily membership of each district for each school year with different weights given to PreK, elementary and secondary students (this number is calculated using a two-year average and the weights range from .46 to 1.13);
- Adjustments to costs based on average daily long-term membership are made for students from economically deprived backgrounds. The weight for students meeting this criteria is .25 and is then multiplied by the poverty ratio of the district; and
- Adjustments to costs based on average daily long-term membership are also made for English language learners, or EL students, in the amount of .20.
The Impact on Burlington
If we take a look back at Vermont’s school demographics as far as we can in the Agency of Education’s (AOE) online database we are able to see that in the 2005-06 academic year, the average Vermont school district was 95% white/Caucasian, 1% Asian, 2% Black, 1% Hispanic, and 1% Multi-Racial. In contrast, Burlington School District (BSD) was 81% White/Caucasian, 5% Asian, 9% Black, 2% Hispanic, and 3% Multi-Racial.
Let’s fast forward to FY17, or the 2016-17 school year. The Vermont school district average has changed slightly: 90% white/Caucasian, 2% Asian, 2% Black, 2% Hispanic, and 3% Multi-Racial. But let’s look at Burlington: 65% White/Caucasian, 12% Asian, 14% Black, 3% Hispanic, and 6% Multi-Racial.
What about the rest of Chittenden County or other K-12 districts of our size? In Chittenden County, only Winooski is more diverse, but if you compare school district enrollment our numbers differ greatly. Burlington enrolls 3,935 students compared to Winooski at 859. No other school district in Chittenden County compares to our level of diversity. Further, when looking at other K-12 districts in Vermont in the same size category as BSD (as defined by AOE), such as Springfield, Hartford, or Rutland City, none of them resemble the demographics of BSD. They align much closer to the state average.
One question we must ask, are we not allocating weight, or dollars to EL students? A look at data from the Education Commission of States shows where Vermont stands compared to other states using funding formulas.
* Maine ranges from 50-70% depending on density of EL students; North Dakota ranges from 20-30% depending on students’ language ability; Massachusetts ranges from 7-34% depending on grade level
As we look at this chart, we note that at least twelve states weight EL students more heavily than Vermont. As of 2015, 26 states were using additional weights for EL students. In Vermont, we have not revisited weighting since 2003. Given the current budget situation we’re facing, this is just one avenue we need to explore with the legislature to address gaps in funding for Burlington. BSD is not like the rest of the Vermont and this data clearly illustrates why.
In Part 3, we’ll talk about PILOT funds, some BSD budget history, and this year’s budget.
Funding public education through property taxes has created a financial problem for taxpayers and school districts. Taxes continue to rise, income inequality is increasing, the baby boomer generation now shoulders most of the tax burden to fund public education but does not have the investment in the system since their children are older, and the “younger” generations are smaller and more racially and ethnically diverse. We’ve also seen the rise of school choice and charter schools, which have led to public dollars moving away to private schools thereby contributing to decreased funding for public education at all levels.
The community in which you live also impacts the quality of your schools as highlighted in this April 2016 NPR piece, Why America’s Schools Have A Money Problem. Although many states have employed mechanisms, such as statewide funding formulas, to try to level the playing field, or create equity between school districts, funding schools with property taxes is failing nationwide.
In my next few posts, I’ll examine how Acts 60 and 68 started out with good intentions but 20 years later are contributing to inequity in our school district, ironically something they were supposed to alleviate. Our “local education property taxes” really are not local. They are a now a state tax. The money is collected locally but is sent to the state and redistributed according to the funding formula developed under Acts 60 and 68. Burlington schools lost an average of $1.4M in PILOT funds beginning in FY16 (payment in lieu of taxes, nontax contributions from tax exempt property owners and municipal utilities to help offset fiscal opportunity costs created by their tax exempt status) funds because the State claimed it violated Act 68. In addition, Acts 60/68 weight students based on poverty and English language learners (or EL students). Is this formula equitable today? Does more money make a difference in educating our students, especially those from lower-income families or students who are EL students? Yes, assuming it is used correctly. See NPR’s second article, Can More Money Fix America’s Schools?
In Part 2, I’ll take a look how Act 60 and 68 work, our student demographics here in Burlington, how we differ from the rest of Vermont, and why we need to take concrete action to change funding for our district.
*Please note, when reading the first NPR article, the figures noted for Burlington’s per pupil spending are not the actual spending that is happening in our district. Our equalized per pupil spending is lower based on how Acts 60 and 68 have been enforced.
The news was spread across Burlington’s Front Porch Forums last night from School Board Chair Mark Porter: “We have been informed that Burlington taxpayers will face a projected tax increase approaching double digits this coming year. This increase is primarily the result of the legislative environment of a $50M education fund deficit. Additionally, this increase is without adding a single item from the list of strategic needs presented to us at the December meeting by the Superintendent. We will know more at our next Board meeting this Tuesday, January 9th, at Hunt Middle School at 6:00 PM.”
The board was sounding the alarm, finally, an alarm that many of us had been concerned about for months as the news from Montpelier about the state of the education fund spilled from VT Digger, the BFP, and Governor Scott himself. But what are the actual numbers we’re looking at and why? Some of these questions were answered at last night’s City Council meeting, where Superintendent Obeng, Director of Finance Nathan Lavery, and Chair Mark Porter made a presentation about the budget. Essentially, if the Burlington School Board proposes a budget with no new initiatives, essentially keeping our budget level or maintaining the status quo, Burlington taxpayers will face a 7%+ increase just from the dollar yield decline from the state and the CLA adjustment from the city. If the school board wants to include the additional investments that were proposed at the December 20, 2017 budget meeting, then the tax increase moves toward the double digit 10% figure.
One thing is certain, Montpelier is the driving force that will make or break a school district at this point. Governor Scott has created a financial scenario by using one-time money that Nathan Lavery referred to as “a fiscal cliff” (note this was a reference to the economics of using one-time money, he did not reference the Governor specifically, that’s me).
For this budget cycle, Burlington taxpayers are stuck. There is no way to get below the 7% increase. There may be slight adjustments depending on how the final CLA number comes out but the Governor has forced all school districts to absorb a tax increase because of short-sighted planning and a lack of understanding of the education system.
Our options in Burlington are limited. Accept the status quo or realize that we must continue to invest in our community by strengthening our school district to attract businesses and families of all races, ethnicities, and genders. Only by taking this approach can we grow our overall population which will help lessen the burden on taxpayers, stem the tide of students leaving for private schools, and families moving out-of-state.
We have to make taking on Montpelier a priority in the coming year. We can no longer sit back and just accept what happens to our community from the state. It’s time to challenge the Act 60/68 formula assumptions, particularly the weighting of EL students, and consider whether or not our PILOT money should be taken back through the legal system.
Voters have a choice this March. Stay on the same path and accept the status quo or make a choice for new, progressive reform that considers everyone – taxpayers, teachers, students, families – as one community.
I’ve just returned from tonight’s special board meeting on the FY19 school budget. I’m extremely disappointed and frustrated by what happened at this meeting. Let me explain why.
First, let me begin with my expectations. As most of you know, the state education fund is faced with a $50M+ shortage, which our normal taxes will not fix. This has led Governor Scott to announce a statewide increase in property taxes of more than 7%, or approximately 9 cents based on the latest numbers. In addition, Governor Scott called for all school districts to level their funding for the year. When a district levels funding this leads to forced budget cuts. Based on the information coming out of Montpelier on a near daily basis, I felt today’s budget meeting was critical and would address many items of concern. 1) If forced to level our budget, how much money will we have to cut from our budget? 2) What budget areas have been identified as possible targets for cuts? 3) How much damage will these cuts do to direct student services? 4) What is the worst case scenario and the best?
Instead, we were presented with what I can only describe as a wishlist of approximately $1.7M (no total was given on the slides, only verbally when a board member asked) in new investments for the district. Now, don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. This information is valuable but this was all that was presented for the budget. Yes, there was some discussion on what these items represented (the full budget presentation will be available to the public and I’ll happily post it here as well), what our loss of federal funds has been over the years (again, something that couldn’t be answered), and the pressure from Montpelier. But, as a district we need to be prepared for some very serious cuts. I don’t know if we are or are not. The board gave no hint if they’ve looked at any of this information. Rather they moved on to FY19 performance pay evaluations for the superintendent.
So, as we face an uncertain budget, the board spent a substantial amount of time debating the two evaluation standards that should be used in FY19 for the superintendent’s performance pay. For those unfamiliar with this, performance pay is an additional $2,500 annual pay the superintendent is entitled to on a discretionary basis by the board on top of his annual salary, automatic CPI increase, and unused vacation payout. In FY18 Mr. Obeng’s performance was evaluated on these goals/measures:
1) To develop an Employment Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Hiring Plan to increase the representation of teachers of color in the Burlington School District with measurable goals.
2) To develop and begin implementing a plan detailing actions to improve and promote a positive work culture and climate in each school building and in the central office, in support of central and school-based administrators and their staff.
The FY19 goals/measures on the table tonight were:
1) Demonstrate significant progress towards implementing the Employment Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Hiring Plan outlined in FY18
2) Make measurable progress on improving District climate, based on the plan you developed in FY18.
There was spirited debate on using the terms “significant” and “measurable” or using both. I won’t go into the entire discourse because you’d immediately notice how subjective these terms are rather than quantifiable. You’ll also note the poor timing of this discussion given our current financial situation.
Word is there will be some type of budget released to the public once we are farther along in the process, but how long do we have to wait for our concerns to be addressed? Will we only have a worst-case scenario presented to us when there is no time to weigh in?
Please contact your school board commissioner and ask questions. What cuts are we facing if we have to level fund? Why are these numbers not available when other school districts have had this information available for weeks? Why aren’t we prepared?
Here is the presentation from that meeting.