Dan DeWalt, one of the founders of this newspaper, is a woodworker and teacher at Leland & Gray. He is an organizer of Restorative Community Justice of Southern Vermont, a new nonprofit forming in the West River valley.
Originally published in The Commons issue #393 (Wednesday, February 1, 2017). This story appeared on page D3.
Discontent with the status quo is not new, and it’s not just limited to those who were seduced by Donald Trump. Folks who care about justice, economic inequality, militarism and the education of our children have been shining the light on glaring problems and the neglect of those problems by our elected officials for a number of years.
Here in Vermont, citizens have watched the state education funding formula go through a series of convoluted twists and turns over the years, until one would be hard pressed to find anyone — legislator, school board member, or district superintendent — who can even explain it cogently.
Yet when citizens organize and meet with their state legislators, all too often we are told with an “aw, shucks” shrug of the shoulders that they’ve tried to fix the funding formula, but it’s just too darned hard and complicated to expect them to actually succeed.
Instead, they urge citizens to work with their schools and boards to “think out of the box” and magically figure out how to educate a student population that has eroding parent support, ever-increasing mental- and physical-health needs, and is living in the midst of an opiate epidemic in an economy that is performing inadequately to meet their needs.
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Local schools are not blind to the economic hardships that their sending towns face. Leland & Gray Union High School in Townshend is one example.
Faced with declining enrollment, the school board asked the principal to find several hundred thousand dollars in cuts for next year’s budget. At this point in the small school’s existence, cuts of that magnitude meant cutting the heart out of the institution, leaving it twisting in the wind to an almost-certain fate of closing its doors in the not-to-distant future.
So the citizens of the school’s sending towns, perhaps newly charged by the understanding that a Trump presidency and a radical right-wing Republican Congress would require greater civic response on our part, came to the school board and made their case for not killing the school.
No one likes to see taxes go up. And probably no one would claim that we can’t find efficiencies and savings in how we fund our schools.
But the 120 Windham County taxpayers who went to the school-board meeting were unanimous on one very important point: Our future is our children.
The economic and cultural viability of our state relies on steadfast support of our education system and a willing investment in the young people who will be running our state and taking care of us in a few decades.
This means that our children’s welfare is not negotiable. If a bridge is weak and unsafe, we don’t throw out the road, we fix the bridge. If our shores were threatened by a hostile force, we wouldn’t say that we won’t pay for our defense and therefore ignore the threat.
But that is just what state government is asking us to do with our children.
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They are leading by example. Political exigencies have prevented lawmakers from fully funding social-service agencies that serve our children, they have prevented legislation requiring sick leave for parents so that they could care for their kids, they have coerced lawmakers into spending extra countless thousands of dollars housing prisoners out of state, while the lack of funding for our children at home only guarantees that we will have more of them getting in the school-to-prison pipeline.
Our state university is funded at a level that makes it unaffordable for vast numbers of Vermont students, yet we depend on those folks to stay in the state and make their livings here.
Among the budgets that the state does not fully control are the locally determined school budgets for our elementary and high schools. This is one of the few remaining areas in the state where any significant local control remains.
And what the voters in the Windham Central Supervisory District are saying is that we are willing to bite the bullet and pay more to ensure that our students are not a casualty of a society that values personal accumulation of private property more than it does the collective value of a well-educated populace.
We are not willing to reduce the learning opportunities available to our students in order to satisfy state-directed spending mandates that don’t take into account our particular circumstances.
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It is unfortunate that when voters go into the ballot booth to cast their votes on the Leland & Gray budget on Tuesday, Feb. 7, the ballot will inform them that this year’s figure is a rise of some 12 percent of the per-pupil spending formula.
This rise comes in spite of the fact that the budget eliminates three full-time teaching positions and has other cuts in supply budgets.
How is this possible? The ballot information is not about our local school’s performance and needs. Rather, it is about a Rube Goldberg funding formula that brings every other school budget in the state into the mix and spits out a one-size-fits-all number for per-pupil spending.
Windham Central voters are working to make sure that our compromise budget gets passed this year. But we need the legislature to stop dithering and act now to change the funding formula.
It is unfair, counterproductive, and not the Vermont way to have state mandates pit neighbor against neighbor with our children becoming collateral damage.
Proposed legislation will better incorporate income sensitivity at all levels of income into the school funding formula. As it stands now, someone making $500,000 a year pays about one half of 1 percent of their income on education tax. Someone making $30,000 pays 3 percent.
If a low-income Vermonter can afford 3 percent, why should a wealthy Vermonter pay one-sixth of that amount?
It’s time for those in state government to adjust their priorities and get serious about a fair funding formula for Vermont schools. In the meantime, taxpayers who want to support their schools will succeed.
We’ll do the legwork necessary to get out the vote and keep our schools from being marginalized and closed, but we can’t do it alone — and we can’t do it indefinitely without the aid or our elected officials.
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