Editor’s note: This letter is by Weiland Ross, of Sunderland.
I am a life member of the National Education Association. Also, I am not normally one of Gov. Scott’s most loyal fans.
However, his proposal, made last week, to deal with Vermont’s education funding crisis was very forceful and courageous. His proposal is simple: He would like to have a re-vote on all school budgets whether or not they were approved at town meetings earlier this year.
The governor’s logic is simple. Because of the pandemic situation the state’s economy is close to being shut down. The revenue shortfalls are predicted to be in the neighborhood of $430 million. Since our state’s economy is fragile in boom times the closures required to fend off the virus are devastating to all concerned, whether they be individuals unable to go to their jobs, businesses forced to operate on a shoestring, or the state itself and its many agencies. Gov. Scott has previously asked all state agencies to submit budget proposals for the coming fiscal year that would cut expenditures across the board by 8 percent. This is not any easy thing to do. However, given the situation it is better to ask for some sacrifice by the public employees rather than be forced to lay people off so the state can make ends meet.
The school budgets were drawn up and voted on when all was well and the economy was still “Vermont Strong.” What was reasonably affordable then is no longer true. Since the schools are closed for the rest of the year and offering only remote learning, every district will finish the year with large amounts of money as budget surpluses. In some cases this could be as much as one-fourth or one-third of their planned expenses. The state’s projections indicate that there will be about a $160 million shortfall in the education funds. Given the combination of large surpluses being accumulated and the entire state’s revenues headed for disaster levels, it is not an unreasonable proposal to ask the education community to absorb their share of the pain.
As expected, the Vermont-NEA issued statements rejecting the governor’s proposal as soon as he made it public. The Vermont-NEA’s attitude is shallow, greedy and unprofessional. They say that re-opening the budget processes will be confusing and chaotic. So what? Budgets ae created by the professional staffs of the districts and the local boards follow their advice slavishly. The trained professionals can handle the reconfigurations. It is the job they were trained to do. The claim is also made that this proposal might “adversely affect” contract negotiations in progress. So what? These negotiations can easily be adapted to a one year situation and can be re-opened next year when things are more normal. They also claim that existing contracted salaries might be adversely affected. Again, so what? This can be avoided by trimming some of the fat out of the budget that every district puts in just in case they need a few dollars here and there that they didn’t plan on. Even if the worst case scenario happens and salaries have to be frozen for one year, that would be better than cutting positions and combining classes.
The governor has made a sensible, honest assessment of the state’s revenues versus expenses situation and is asking the largest group of public employees to join the rest of the population in sharing the burden. The Vermont-NEA members have been hurt less financially than any other large group of employees so far. Let them not claim abuse if they are asked to give a little. After all, it is for the good of the kids.