Truth in education finance advertising — a debate for Vermont

Editor’s note: This is Part 5 in our Debate for Vermont Series.

By Jay Eshelman

It’s difficult enough to understand the nuance of Vermont’s education spending. With regard to the recent threat of litigation against the Agency of Education for non-compliance, several points come to mind indicating less than sufficient business management practices in the AOE, as it claims insufficient resources to carry out its mission, citing, for example, recent staff cuts.

This raises the question as to why the AOE in its 2017 budget stated the following: “The Agency of Education is not asking for additional positions in this budget.”

In this year’s recent budget debate, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe claimed that “when private schools close students must transfer to another school. The problem is, tuition is paid in advance and can’t be recovered.”

Ostensibly, this loss of money exacerbates the AOE’s operating budget shortfall. Curiously, however, Ms. Holcombe’s claim is incorrect, as seen in 16 V.S.A. § 166 (f) regarding approved and recognized independent schools:

An approved independent school that accepts students for whom the district of residence pays tuition under chapter 21 of this title shall bill the sending district monthly for a State-placed student and shall not bill the sending district for any month in which the State-placed student was not enrolled.

In the comments section of VTDigger’s Nov. 15 article about the potential lawsuit (“Lawmakers threaten to sue education agency secretary“), a vociferous school board director who supports the AOE lock, stock and barrel said in response to this current round of AOE budget concerns: “You’re engaging in bait and switch arguments … In this case we’re talking about the AOE’s budget, but you quickly want to shift the subject to local district budgets.”

Well, according to the Vermont Agency of Education FY 2018 Budget Recommendations, “By statute, Education Fund dollars cannot be used for state level activities, and thus cannot support AOE operations or activities. The one exception is that the Education Fund pays for its associated auditing costs, accounting and short-term borrowing.”

The AOE 2018 budget goes on to report that “the General Fund pays for about 29% of [AOE] investment in personal services.” This means 71 percent of staff payments comes out of the Education Fund or other sources which do affect local district budgets.

It’s also very interesting to note the following in the AOE 2018 Budget: “An additional $250,000 for three staff positions is requested. This should not be taken from the Agency budget as that would only shift burdens and stress an over-taxed agency.”

That’s it. Do we assume that just three additional staff could have eliminated the current brouhaha over non-compliance — the law suit, the angst, the potential additional costs of litigation?

Here’s my concern. Where is AOE business management? In my 40-plus years of experience as an employer in these circumstances, business financial management dictates a consideration of the cost of adding three new full-time staff members, plus their benefits, for what is likely to be an extended period of time — with short term overtime costs instead. The extensive 2018 budget application makes no mention of such considerations. Why not a little overtime to cover short term demands? Could it be a continued emphasis to increasing the state’s payroll? Do union contracts prohibit overtime? After all, AOE staffing has declined in a lower proportion than the decline of school enrollments as it is.

Not only are we seeing what I will euphemistically describe as a failure to communicate by Vermont’s education officials, the politicization of the budget process indicates less than sufficient financial management practice by the Legislature, the AOE and its guiding light, the State Board of Education, not to mention our local school board members who typically have little, if any, financial experience in this regard.

Should we be surprised Vermont’s per student K-12 education costs are some of the highest in the nation — in the world for that matter? Caveat emptor.

Jay Eshelman is a former school board director and business owner living in Vermont.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Public domain