Editor’s note: This is Part 3 in our Debate for Vermont Series.
By Jay Eshelman
In a recently initiated online discussion with State Auditor Doug Hoffer regarding the coming 8-cent increase in Vermont’s statewide education taxes, I suggested checking out the Agency of Education on behalf of Vermont taxpayers. The discussion went like this:
I said: “Doug, you just published an expose on the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s failure to enforce environmental laws. How about checking out the Agency of Education on behalf of Vermont taxpayers?”
He said: “As for the Agency, we’ve already done two performance audits.”
I said: “You do a ‘performance audit’ of the methods the AOE uses to calculate ‘equalized enrollments’ (its method for padding Vermont’s decreasing student population) and all you had to say was the ‘Data Quality Could Be Enhanced.’ And before that, you discover that ‘with limited competitive bidding, AOE may be missing opportunities for cost savings and improved contractor performance.'”
I added: “What were the sum totals of these irregular contracts? About $600-$700 thousand. This out of a total of $36.9 million awarded that year to multiple state agencies under the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTTELC), a four-year grant administered jointly by the federal Departments of Education and of Health and Human Services.”
He said: “If you have something meaningful (and factual) to say, please share that with us.”
OK, here’s my recommendation.
How about the state auditor compare the Vermont Agency of Education’s cost per student with the aggregate cost per student of all supervisory unions in Vermont and the aggregate cost per student in each school district combined? The Vermont Agency of Education is implementing consolidation under Act 46 ostensibly to reduce education costs. How will anyone know the level and detail of success this process creates without knowing the current benchmark?
For example, the AOE has more than 160 employees with a $9.3 million budget and serves 88,000 students statewide. That’s $105 per student. Concurrently, my Windham Northeast Supervisory Union has a $12.2 million budget serving 1,244 students. That’s approximately an additional $9,800 per student. Furthermore, each school district within the WNESU spends about $19,500 per student (actually budgeted in addition to its supervisory union assessments.
Added together, that’s a bit less than $30,000 spent on each K-12 student.
Aren’t you at all curious about these costs and the potential overlap of services provided — not to mention the investment result that only half of Vermont’s students achieve academic proficiency and still about 90 percent graduate.
There are, for example, special education staff in the Vermont Agency of Education, and in each supervisory union and in each school in each district. There are IT staff in each organization and administrative assistants in each organization to support that staff. And so it goes within the various education departments of each organization.
Can this be a reasonable education investment for this level of academic performance? As reported in the VT Digger article, education taxes are going up 8 cents again this year despite Act 46 consolidations and declining enrollments. Why?
Of course, the final analysis will be comparing these public school education costs to the costs of independent schools. In my district, for example, we have several independent schools — including their administrators and special education services — that charge about half of the aggregate cost of the public school system.
Wouldn’t it be wise to know why?
Jay Eshelman is a former school board director and business owner living in Vermont.