Our Opinion: Southern Vermont needs to diversify its portfolio

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Now that the Twin Valley school budget has passed, educators there can go back to doing what they do best for the children. And town officials in Whitingham can focus their energy on convincing legislators to change the education funding formula so towns like Wilmington and Whitingham don't keep ending up in the "penalty box."

Large increases in the towns' school tax rates were attributed to Twin Valley being penalized for going over the threshold for an "excessive spending limit" based on how students are weighted and counted in an "equalized pupil" calculation, as well as changes in the communities' common level of appraisal for property values. The Whitingham Select Board reacted to the increase with a letter urging residents to reject the school budget on Town Meeting Day in order to send a message to the state. Both towns defeated the school budget in March, but then reversed course and approved the budget on Wednesday.

The latest vote "says a lot about the community," said Windham Southwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Chris Pratt, adding, "They decided to pass the budget because they know they might not agree with the funding formula or the increases in the taxes they're going to see but they're putting their kids first."

Pratt said he was proud to be part of a community that makes a difficult decision like that, "even though it's not sustainable or affordable." To get out of the "penalty box," the number of budget cuts would be devastating to the students, he added.

"It's a state problem," he said. "Education is getting more and more expensive."

Going up against the state on this issue likely will be a long, drawn-out process that may or may not produce the desired result.

In the meantime, there is something else the Deerfield Valley towns can do to alleviate the problem of higher spending per "equalized pupil." As noted during the Whitingham Town Meeting in March, Twin Valley (and indeed all of Vermont) needs to stop the trend of declining enrollment and put more students in the schools. We're not talking about a huge population explosion that would require expanding facilities, but enough to take advantage of better economies of scale and reduce per-pupil costs. According to Twin Valley school officials, an extra 34 students would be enough to get the district out of the so-called penalty box.

Of course, that begs the question: How do we get more students? By offering good-paying jobs that would entice more young professionals to move here and stay to raise their families.

Vermont loves its ski resorts and all the tourism dollars they bring to the state. Hotels, restaurants, gift shops and the like all benefit from a healthy ski industry, as does the state's coffers. But it's time for Vermont, and especially the Deerfield Valley, to think outside the retail and tourism box and the low-paying service jobs they provide. And we need businesses that aren't so dependent on unpredictable weather patterns.

When building an investment portfolio for long-term financial planning, most experts will tell you to diversity, or as the saying goes, "don't put all your eggs into one basket."

That is exactly what southern Vermont needs - to diversity its portfolio. Then people would start to see Vermont as not just a tourism destination, but as a place to live, work and raise a family.








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