By Rob Roper
One of the most anticipated bills of any legislative session is the “yield bill,” which sets the property tax rate to pay for public education. This year we learn, as our representatives scramble out the Statehouse door for the year, the property tax rate will increase by a penny ($1.51 from $1.50 per $100 of assessed value for homesteads, and $1.59 as opposed to $1.58 for non-residential properties). This is necessary to fund an additional $70.5 million in new spending this year — an increase of 4.5% — for a system that continues to lose student population. K-12 enrollment dropped from 76,220 to 75,510 between the 2016-17 school year and the 2017-18 school year, continuing a 20-year trend that shows no signs of slowing.
Legislators did not record a roll call vote in either the House or Senate to chronicle who voted for this. (Pitch here for electronic, digitally recorded voting for every vote.)
This is the same Legislature that failed to fix Act 46, the forced school district merger law, which was passed in 2015 to “lower the cost of delivering K-12 education” and, therefore, property taxes. We spent $1,514,000,000 on public education in 2015, and the projection for 2019 is $1,681,000,000, according to the Agency of Education Budget Book, 2019. So, I guess we can mark this down as a failure to deliver on so many levels.
So, what’s driving these cost increases? In large part a growing number of students identified as special needs. But wait a minute: When we passed publicly funded pre-k programs back in 2007 (Act 62) and made them mandatory in 2015 (Act 166), one of the big promises made was that “investing” in these programs would cause a reduction in the need for special needs students. Remember? For every dollar spent we would save $3, $7, or $16, depending upon which bogus study you chose to believe.
The number of pre-k students in Vermont is actually growing (from 6,999 in 2017/17 to 7,685 in 2017/18). This is, of course, a cost driver in and of itself. But it appears that this “investment” (increased costs) is actually driving up increased costs elsewhere in the system rather than reducing them. Another promise broken,