Tough budget season underway for urban and rural school boards

With Vermont facing an education fund deficit of at least $50 million, school boards and property-tax weary constituents across the state have a challenging budget season ahead.

The budget season for school boards is underway, with initial meetings taking place in late October and a deadline to approve final budgets in January, ahead of Town Meeting Day in March.

Photo courtesy of Vermont Agency of Education

Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe

Earlier this month, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe warned superintendents and school board members that the annual planning ritual is now burdened with “an almost $50 million Education Fund budget gap, due in large part to use of one-time money to reduce the tax rate.”

Unless local school boards can make big cuts, the statewide property tax is projected to see a 7- to 9-cent increase.

“This all just comes down to the priorities of the community … and oftentimes we have to make tough decisions,” Mark Porter, chair of the Burlington School Board, said of the looming budget battle.

Porter says starting with a deficit is nothing new in Vermont, and that there’s a method to budget season that stays consistent no matter the starting point.

“Last year we were starting in the negative also … it’s not unheard of to be working from a hole,” he said.

“We don’t work from the fear, we look to what happens afterwards. The first thing we have to do is build a budget, so [we ask] what are the needs of the community.”

One challenge each year for school budgets is that the tax rate isn’t determined until after the board approves a budget in January. For instance, last year Porter’s board approved a budget with a 2.25 percent tax increase and number didn’t hold for even 24 hours.

“Overnight the state released some numbers including the common level of appraisal, and without even adding a dollar to our budget our decision resulted in a 5.88 percent tax increase,” he said. “And we had nothing to do with it.”

As far as what’s causing the state’s deficit, Porter said a “pool of things,” including the level of special education funding, the level of grants, and funds and revenues that are no longer available.

Away from Burlington, rural school board counterparts are under increased pressure with the state’s aging population and fewer kids in the system, even as the number of teachers and administrators stays the same.

Chris Tormey, chair of the Cabot School Board, represents one of those rural communities which is struggling to maintain itself amid dwindling attendance. His school so far has narrowly escaped consolidation under Act 46, Vermont’s district merger law. He said the news about the deficit puts a strain on the board.

“We’ve gotten early indication from Holcombe that there’s going to be a hole and that certainly is going to make it more difficult,” he said. “It’s pretty early in our budget season as far as seeing how we might deal with it but it’s going to be tough.”

He also said that this is not the first time a budget season has begun with unpleasant state news, and added that board members try their best to protect personnel when trimming budgets. But it’s always on the table.

“Most folks in education would tell you that very few schools have additional programs that do not involve staff which they can make much reductions in,” he said. “So, if you are going to make any significant reductions in cost, it almost always involves staffing reductions.”

Tormey added that he welcomes any outside support. He attended a School Board Association meeting last month, and continues to look for answers for how to mitigate the impact of cuts on people and educational quality.

Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorthMikeB.

Images courtesy of Flickr/ and Vermont Agency of Education

8 thoughts on “Tough budget season underway for urban and rural school boards

  1. In Tennessee, we have maintenance of effort or other words the school board’s budget can not be reduced to below what it was funded last year. So if you gave them $5 dollars last year, you have to give them at least $5 this year. Crazy way to do business.

  2. How about capping the money paid to towns to the level of last year, minus 3%?

    Towns would have to cut their portions to stay below the amounts voters in each town would approve.

    And tell towns that next year the state portion will be reduced by 3%, so towns again would have to make cuts, etc.

    Eventually Vermont would have average costs per student to correspond to the average achievement level.

    • When the student population drops as significantly as ours has, yet the number of teachers and ‘administrators’ either grows or stays the same, we know there’s a problem. Unfortunately, most of the crew in Montpelier with ‘D’ or ‘P’ after their names are bought and paid for by the NEA.

  3. The first budget cut should come with the elimination of Rebecca Holcombe’s position as Secretary of Education. The second cut should be the dismantling of the Vermont Agency of Education.

  4. Holcombe and the AOE functionaries promised savings if Act 46 was implemented – then they made an inside deal with the VSA and VSBA (and possibly others) that in return for their support their members would be guaranteed job security. This Faustian bargain assured the Act 46 would not result in structural savings, the only remaining purpose for pushing Act 46 was to continue down the path toward one statewide school district as first attempted by Phil Hoff in 1965. The plan violated the Vermont Constitution in 1965 and still violated the constitution TODAY ! Court challenged currently underway will prove the undoing of their fiendish plot as Act 46 not only violates Section 68 of the state constitution – it also violates the equal education tenants of the Brigham decision, the open meeting laws that have been violated by the 706 merger study committees and the “elections” held to decide on the merger decisions in each town have violated both State and Federal election laws ! Help is on the way and for a change the Vermont judiciary will be providing the relief !

    • Mr. Paige’s assertions are spot on.

      The simplest solution is comprehensive School Choice. It satisfies all constitutional requirements while, at the same time, providing incentives for a faster, better, cheaper education system.

      And just because any of us, individually, can’t anticipate, specifically, how innovative educational efficiencies might manifest themselves, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t create an environment in which innovation can thrive. The vast majority of skills I now use in my daily life and business didn’t exist when I was in school. To expect monopolistic oligarchies like the State legislature, State Board of Education and the public school monopoly to predict, let alone instruct, the skills and processes the future will bring is pure folly.

      • We save tons in Virginia because of the School Choice Tax Credit program. Florida has done even better. If the Republican candidate for governor wins here in a couple weeks, he is on board to moving the Virginia program more like the Florida program, which Rob Roper sighted an article from in an article here on TNR a few weeks ago. The article showed a very a much higher number of low income students being prepared for and going to college as a result of their school choice program, which targets children from low income families.

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