Scott administration looks to impose student ratios

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The Scott administration introduced a new proposal Tuesday that sets a threshold student-to-staff ratio for schools. Schools that fail to meet the target would be fined.

The statewide average student-to-staff ratio is 4 to 1. The Scott administration wants to set a threshold ratio of 5.15 to 1 for every school in Vermont. Some schools in Vermont currently have a 3 to 1 ratio; others have a 7 to 1 ratio.

Under the proposal, districts that fall below the target would face fines that would be as much as $20,000 to $40,000, according to a formula from the Agency of Education that ties the penalty to the ratio threshold.

The plan would go into place in 2020, giving school districts time to find ways to cut staff without hurting students, according to Adam Greshin, the commissioner of the Department of Finance and Management.

Nearly 1,000 school staff statewide would be laid off over a five year period, under the plan, saving about $45 million. There are currently about 18,000 school employees statewide.

“It depends on how quickly staffing levels adjust,” he said. “Act 46 continues to roll on and our view is that over a series of years we can get to those staffing levels.

“We are trying to come up with ways to do this, but we haven’t fully vetted this,” Greshin said.

Greshin framed the penalty to schools as a fine, but lawmakers said it was really a property tax increase.

“People with ratios that are low will have an increased property tax,” said Rep. Ben Joseph, D-Grand Isle.

Greshin said that people in towns with higher ratios will see a drop in their property tax because statewide the property tax would level out.

“You are a master of vocabulary,” Joseph said.

Property tax rates are set to rise by 5.5 cents next year, and the Scott administration wants lawmakers to act now to bring down spending next year.

Costs have increased over the past 20 years as student enrollments have dramatically declined from 104,000 students to a low this year of 78,000. The state now spends $1.6 billion on the K-12 public school system. Staff salaries make up more than 80 percent of school costs.

Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican who ran on a no new taxes pledge, has demanded that lawmakers come up with a plan to significantly reduce school spending. So far, legislators have struggled to come up with proposals that reap the savings the governor is looking for.

Last year the governor and the Legislature came to blows at the end of the session over the issue, and Scott ultimately vetoed the budget and tax bills because lawmakers didn’t pass legislation that would have created a framework for a statewide teachers contract.

Yesterday, Scott threatened to veto bills that increase taxes and fees. The governor softened the blow last week when he said he would consider using one-time money to keep education taxes level this year, as long as lawmakers agree to make changes to special education, create a statewide teacher health benefit and reduce the number of school employees.

At issue is a $40 million shortfall in the education fund that increases the school tax rate for fiscal year 2019. Scott doesn’t want taxes to go up, but lawmakers don’t know where they are supposed to find money to plug the hole.

“I don’t have a money tree in my backyard that produces one time money,” said Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, chair of the house ed panel.

Sharpe backs changes to the education formula passed by the House and embraced by the Senate that relieves some of the pressure on the property tax with a new income tax surcharge. While the proposal raises money from new sources, the amount of overall spending on education, however, doesn’t change.

Scott doesn’t like the new funding formula. He does, however, support the structural changes lawmakers have made to the way the state pays for special education. The governor and Sharpe also agree on the need to devise a uniform health care benefit for teachers.

So, two of three isn’t bad, right? Wrong.

Greshin said all three elements, including a student to staff ratio threshold, are essential to a “comprehensive plan” that includes a threshold for student-to-staff ratios.

“We think this is one part of a plan, Putting one in isolation isn’t a good way to go about it,” he said.

In his formula for the student-to-staff ratio target, Brad James, finance manager at the Agency of Education, excluded a number of staff positions from his analysis including: preK teachers (and students), Special Education teachers and directors, transportation personnel, maintenance workers and contractors.

James estimated that 940 staff would be cut. The majority, 560, would be paraeducators. The savings would be about $45 million, based on fiscal year 2018 figures.

Rep. Katherine Webb, D-Shelbourne, who is a special educator, said you can’t just cut paras without hiring qualified staff to work with struggling students. Her school district cut 21 but hired seven special educators in their place which reduced personnel but had zero financial impact.

The pitch doesn’t jibe with the special education bill that passed out of the House, according to Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall. That bill encourages districts to use special education money more effectively and this proposal he said would “provide perverse incentives to not be creative and keep things status quo.”

Other committee members were equally dismayed and suggested the administration have more patience. Rep. Alice Miller, D-Schaftsbury said this would drive school districts crazy. “We are constantly changing things for them. They came through in such a beautiful, helpful way this year, I think they have the message,” she said, referring to school boards and voters approving budgets that only raised per pupil spending by .07 percent.

Miller suggested Montpelier sit back and let Act 46 and the special education legislation play out before demanding more from school districts. “Why don’t we just take our time and see how this comes out? This may solve our problem if we are patient.”

Conlon,agreed with Miller’s wait and see approach saying Act 46 is already enabling reductions in force. He said 23 positions were cut in his district and more than 16 positions in Addison Northeast, and 17 positions were eliminated in Addison County. He said the proposal made him bristle, “people are already doing a good job.”

James said the method is a “blunt instrument” and said it shouldn’t be implemented in the next fiscal year.

Lawmakers want to know: whether 5.15 is the right number; how other states do it; how would small and large, rural and urban districts be affected; what role does poverty play; how might special education students be affected?

That’s a lot of work before the end of the session, according to Sharpe.  “We don’t have time to do the appropriate amount of work,” he said, adding the special education bill they passed took two months and three studies to put together.

“This is study one. We need one or two more studies” hearings and meetings before taking action at the state level. “We can’t go forward unless we have this,” he said.

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