Governor says Vermont has too many schools, too few students

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NORTHFIELD — Gov. Phil Scott says the root cause of a steep rise in property taxes is an economic crisis in Vermont's rural communities.

The state must take urgent action to right size a system that has too many schools, too many teachers and too few students, Scott told a group of 330 lawmakers and educators Monday at a daylong summit at Norwich University.

"We face an urgent need to transform our education system into the best in the country with what we spend today, and what we can afford to invest in the future," Scott said.

The governor lamented an $80 million hole in the education fund and projected 7 percent average increase in property tax rates next fiscal year. "I think most of us recognize most Vermonters can not afford this, which adds to the sense of urgency," Scott said. "But I also know, and I hope you agree, that together we can find solutions."

In the next legislative session, Scott promised to address the shortfall in the education fund while creating a school system that stretches beyond grades K-12 , starting at birth and ending with full employment.

There were no specifics given on how the $80 million shortfall would be plugged without hurting schools.

But Scott said Vermont has too many school buildings and staff for the number of students it serves.

The state has lost 30,000 students over the past 25 years, he said, and every year Vermont student enrollment drops by 1,000.

"Every dollar we spend on underutilized space is a dollar not spent on a child," he said.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, said she is worried about finding the right kind of cuts. "I'm terrified to think about trying to extract savings in a predictable and fair way out of this system, this year, in a way that doesn't penalize certain groups of

students," she said.

Anton Kelsey, who works at Mount Mansfield in Jericho, complained about new state education mandates and said there are too many rules dictating how money is spent in schools. "Following those rules costs money," he said. "All our decisions have to be made based on what is best for our students."

The education summit featured panel discussions on how school district consolidations are helping communities save money and better deal with shrinking student enrollments, and a forum on how to manage student to staff ratios. On average, Vermont has four students for every school staff person.

Rebecca Holcombe, secretary of the Agency of Education, said the demographic and economic trends Vermont faces are serious, but steps can be taken now to ease the pain.

The Scott administration plans to issue a summary of the discussion and survey results in the near future.

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