John Klar: Bloated bureaucracy closes Vermont schools

By John Klar

In 2013, Vermont held the distinction of having the lowest student-teacher ratio in the nation (10:1). This might be a good thing — if it were affordable. This bloat in school administrators relative to student population is a national infection, but Vermont’s intractable bureaucrats are particularly agile.

Recently, Vermont enacted sweeping consolidation (Act 46) of its public schools, closing many small rural schools under the pretense of saving money — yet costs instead increased substantially. In 2018, the Green Mountain State’s schools’ administration expenses were exceptionally expensive:

Vermont’s relatively highest spending category per pupil was in school administration ($1,296; US average $651), which was second highest only to DC ($1,447). Vermont ranked sixth in teacher salaries ($6,743, US average $4,603 …)

Vermont’s anemic economy, struggling under high taxes and regulations, leads many regular wage-earners to leave (with their children). Yet declining student numbers do not translate into a decline in administrators, any more than declining taxpayer incomes restrain those state workers’ incomes and benefits.

Vermont’s 53 school superintendents receive an average $155,417 salary, or 2.59 times the state’s median income of $60,076. Vermont spends $8,237,101 annually on superintendents, despite declining student enrollment (a 25.5% decrease from 1997 to 2016). Its school system is now 49th in the nation in size but #2 in costs as a percentage of median income ($18,290/$60,076, with New York at #1).

Five years ago a cogent criticism of this escalating failure was voiced:

… 80 percent of school budgets consist of compensation for teachers and staff, yet no serious public conversation has addressed how costs have reached these levels and whether taxpayers can continue supporting them[.] … Labor costs per pupil increased in 2012 by 6.6 percent, double the national rate[.]

Worse, Vermont’s pension system is one of many underfunded in the country, estimated to be some $4.5 billion in the red. The actual shortfall is most certainly much higher, because the state has employed extraordinarily optimistic projections for returns on invested funds to understate true liabilities.

Many small rural schools have been closed, leading to a high-profile lawsuit by thirty-three school districts challenging the Act 46 legislation: a decision by the state’s highest court is pending.  Whatever the outcome, teachers and other administrators will ultimately find themselves in open war with desperate taxpayers unable to foot the bill.

Vermonters truly value their teachers, who are asked to deal with ever greater problems in children due to anxiety, broken homes, drug abuse, and behavioral issues. Bloating bureaucracy is not so simple as blaming one side versus another: the problem is a modern one, caused by decaying community and rural values, and economic centralization:

The local schools no longer serve the local community; they serve the government’s economy and the economy’s government…. Professionalism means more interest in salaries and less interest in what used to be known as disciplines. And so we arrive at the idea, endlessly reiterated in the news media, that education can be improved by bigger salaries for teachers — which may be true, but education cannot be improved… by bigger salaries alone.

—Wendell Berry, “The Work of Local Culture,” What Are People For?, 1990, p. 164

A dairy farmer with a shrinking herd of cows lacks the luxury of increasing his salary: economic limits constrain him — he cannot set the price of milk. A government that awards pay raises to teachers and superintendents even as the “herd” of students shrinks, while compressing the schools into a more centralized and expensive consolidation, is destroying its community at the source, consigning its children to CAFOs.

Schools close, bureaucracy grows. To avert a collapse of Vermont’s school system and economy, this “progression” must be reversed.

John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield, and former pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield. He is running for governor in 2020. This commentary originally appeared at American Thinker.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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10 thoughts on “John Klar: Bloated bureaucracy closes Vermont schools

  1. Achieving a low student/teacher ratio is simple. As we learned in Vermont, as the student population declines the number of teachers remains the same and the bureaucracy running the system remains bloated. So what else is new.

  2. Ref: Outta VT and HAPPY!
    BMUS, Wells River – 400 students, $8.1M budget, 101 staff on payroll.

    In Townshend it’s 1:3 ratio. The town’s common its loaded with cars. They have about a $7 budget. Townshend is smaller that Wells River.

    The school applies for a budget increase, If turned down, they keep “re-considering” each month until they wear people down and get what they want. Democracy!

    The portion of property taxes is 80%+ to the Gov School. The town collects for the system. If you have any problem coughing up the money, the town takes it over. No one owns “their” property. Go to AL winters, they treat people here like people instead of a dollar. I’m looking to move, been a VT’er since 1939. BS (not B-ernie S-anders).

  3. Nothing will ever happen to contain school costs until we oust the Progressive left wing operatives in the legislature. This is their base, they will never hurt the “union” as it will mean loss of votes for their election/reelection. Legislators don’t really care about cost as the liberal teachers preach the same narrative as the liberals in Montpeculier.

    When you tell taxpayers in your town that some teachers are making over $100K per year for 175 days of work, must be on campus only 61/2 hours per day and be in the classroom at least 3 hours per day they will tell you that you are crazy. You show them the salary spread sheet and contract language and they say they never realized that. They (taxpayers) always felt sorry for the teachers for their low pay and tough working conditions. Don’t forget teachers get summers off, weeks off during the year, generous personal time off, etc. Pretty cushy job. Oh by the way there is no performance evaluation…. the union will fight that to the bitter end to be sure that never happens. It is essentially a job for life. I have had principals tell me their hands are tied to take any disciplinary action and will feel the wrath of the union if they do so. So, they ignore it and just keep rolling along.

    Compare that with a graduate engineer who has measurable tasks he/she is responsible for. May have to work weekends, nights, cover emergencies, meet his/her committed cost projections and time lines, etc. And may well start at a lower salary than his teaching compatriot. If his/her performance is not deemed satisfactory it means the end of the job.

    Combining school districts, etc. is meaningless. When 80% of the cost is salaries and benefits, and the physical plant and transportation is the other 20%, consolidating is an act of futility. I haven’t heard that any teacher lost their job as a result of a consolidation so it is essentially cost neutral.

    Until the legislature represents the taxpayer and not the teacher union, education costs in VT will only keep growing with a continued decline in enrollment.

    We wonder why people are leaving the state. Well, I’m not!

  4. I say: good. Let the public schools close. They are nothing less than indoctrination centers for government o to subvert parental authority and create mind-controlled slaves who will never question or resist totalitarians. Mr. Klar, you should be adamantly professing and supporting unfettered homeschooling.

  5. BMUS, Wells River – 400 students, $8.1M budget, 101 staff on payroll. The worst part is that if you go to sell your house and put it up on zillow.com, zillow rates BMUS as a 2/10. Thank God for people retiring to VT and buying property in the name of their trust and not caring about crappy schools with bloated budgets or I never would have been able to sell my house and get the hell out.

  6. How deep is the conflict of interest in Vermont’s public school monopoly? With guys like William Mathis acting as the chair of the State Board of Education’s Legislative committee, what else do you expect?

    MetaMetrics Corporation, North Carolina based education assessment provider.

    National Education Policy Center, Boulder, CO
    Recommends the Lexile® Framework For Reading by MetaMetrics

    William Mathis, Chair of the Vermont Board of Education Legislative Committee, Chair of the VTSBE Education Quality Review Subcommittee, …AND Design consultant for the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) … AND Managing Director of National Education Policy Center – funded in part by the national teacher’s unions.

    Of course, the Vermont Agency of Education contracted with MetaMetrics. These are just some of the education predators circling their financial prey at the great public education watering hole.

    • Jay, you’ve got it just right. Slick Will Mathis is making lots of money. Why is it the the “managing director” of the Colorado based, teachers union funded, national education policy center is allowed to make education policy here in Vt while being compensated by an out of state, union funded organization? I thought Vt had an ethics commission? Why isn’t anyone looking into this?

  7. Very good John, and thank you for writing this. I have been saying for a long time that administrative costs need to be cut! The Superintendent that was in my district was very responsible for the enactment of Act 46 in my district. Then he left for a job elsewhere. I’ll just say that the majority of the school boards were not very happy with the outcome. Anyway-great article.

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