Recent VSBA Proposals Reviewed
© 2017, The Alliance of Vermont School Board Members
The VSBA is placing six policy proposals before school board representatives this October. These resolutions are overflowing with proposals for Montpelier to set up a series or task forces, councils and other bureaucracies designed chiefly to limit the power of school boards to fulfill their statutory responsibilities to their communities.
None of these proposals originated from Vermont school boards. None were previously vetted by area school boards.
What these policy proposals have in common is that:
Taken together, their presence on the VSBA agenda is not only inconsistent with the mission of Vermont school boards but an affront to the hard-working elected public school board members across the state. They deserve to be read carefully and then rejected by anyone who cares about the future of locally-controlled public education.
This document is intended to review a number of the problems with the proposals as written and to summarize just a few of the reasons that they should be rejected as generally inconsistent with the mission of of Vermont school boards and unrepresentative of our views.
Proposal #1: Koch Brothers “Innovation Zones”
Several proposals before the members use language originally developed by The American Legislative Exchange Council, a Koch-Brothers funded, Texas-and-Kansas-based organization known for their hostility to public schools. As the Center for Media and Democracy have documented, ALEC lobbyists have proposed a series of bills to defund and divert money from public education to private schools using a variety of justifications, such as “efficiency”, ”freedom”, ”personalization”, “innovation” or whatever their PR team believe will sound salable.
The “Innovation Zones” proposal uses the latest term of art being used by ALEC and the Koch Brothers to promote a privatization bill called,
“THE INNOVATION SCHOOLS AND SCHOOL DISTRICTS ACT”
Versions of this legislation have been circulating since 2010 and been given a new name every few years. This iteration is being accompanied by a national public relations campaign using language that implies public schools cannot innovate and that more “innovative” Vermont school children need to have a new class of “world-class” schools and districts that are entirely exempt from school board oversight and free from burdensome state education requirements like providing access to all of our students!
The legislation title is intentionally deceptive. Like other ALEC bills, it is loaded with provisions that are hostile to its alleged stated purpose. It does not intend to innovate but to defund and privatize. ALEC-underwritten front organizations such as the Innovative Schools Network (ISN) have been set up to promote the idea that innovation=privatization. The ISN’s founders freely acknowledged that its “network” exists principally to promote charter and independent schools at the expense of public schools, and that the term “innovate” is a euphemism for keeping such publicly-funded private schools free from local governance or public oversight of their effectiveness, fiscal responsibility or educational agenda..
The VSBA language characterizing these “innovation zones” suggests that the bill would free up existing school districts. It does nothing of the kind. It is an attempt to divert public monies to private schools; to encourage the development of privately governed alternative schools playing by different rules that would take money from the public system; and to turn taxpayer-funded schools into independent schools no longer accountable to publicly-elected school directors.
One can argue that big city school districts, in particular, are far too uniform and that they provide a cookie cutter approach to education that would benefit from experimentation and greater variety. Many larger urban school systems such as that in Baltimore, Maryland have set up special categories of public schools with differing points of emphasis and educational philosophies to provide parents and students with a greater array of educational choices.
But recent legislation such as Act 46, previously supported by the VSBA and some of the same outside political forces, was designed to encourage precisely the kind of standardization and administrative consolidation that this “innovation” proposal now decries!
Certainly many board members will be very sympathetic to anything that suggests that there is too much standardization, that schools need to be free to experiment without constant state interference, that innovation is a good idea, and literally anything that would get state regulators out of their hair would be helpful.
But this proposal doesn’t do any of that!
This ALEC-inspired proposal is NOT designed to leave local public schools alone to innovate with less state constraints. It proposes to siphon off more of their money to private and charter schools.
Instead The “ Innovation zones” proposal being put before school board representatives is distinctive for the degree to which it not only fails to address the regulatory constraints generated by prior VSBA proposals. It also fails to disclose that the authors of the proposal are completely hostile to the entire idea of publicly accountable public education guided by elected school boards.
The effectiveness and impact of charter schools, and the wisdom of diverting public funds to private educational bodies continues to be debated before in the legislature, and will continue to be a point of discussion across the state and nationally.
Nevertheless, school board members have an obligation to advocate for and support public education. Unless it is revised to make clear that innovation districts are to be public entities governed by locally accountable boards (and this proposal fails to do so-- and for a reason), attendees should reject this proposal out of hand.
They have every right to ask how this proposal, in its present form, even came to be submitted for consideration.
Proposal #2: Subsuming Local School Board’s Ability to Determine Employee Benefits
The title of this resolution proposes to “Establish a statewide health insurance benefit for school employees.” Since virtually all schools provide health benefits and since recent legislative action has made it impossible to use a health insurer other than VEHI, the state has effectively established a statewide health insurance benefit .
So what does this new proposal really do, and what is the motivation behind it?
As written, it creates yet another one of those councils that state regulators are so fond of, cherry-picks a small group of school board officials accountable to the state rather than the voters, and puts them in charge of substantial percentage of local school budgets!
Are Vermont Boards ok with this?
Many board members will agree that the details of the VEHI healthcare system were extremely challenging to understand. While in theory, the new insurance programs should have allowed boards more creativity in the formulation of health and benefits packages, as a practical matter the complexity of healthcare benefits, paired with the imposition of last-minute legislative changes, and a state “clawback” of the savings that boards were supposed to realize, generated few benefits for local budgets and made union negotiations more acrimonious than necessary. No wonder many local boards to look for an alternative to settle the issue of healthcare.
Others in the state have made a more narrowly partisan argument. It is premised on the assertion that local school boards are in thrall to or lack the will to effectively negotiate at all with teacher unions they suppose to be all-powerful and overly influential.
This latter argument suggests that the state needs to take over all labor negotiations beginning with, but not necessarily ending with, a takeover of healthcare negotiations. The working assumption behind such an argument is that the state (or yet another “council”) would always be a more vigilant negotiator, no matter who is in office.
What evidence supports this assumption?
Several advocates of this proposal have been pretty explicit in their belief that local school boards cannot do what is best for their communities. Some have imagined that the state could negotiate savings of up to thirteen million dollars in labor costs.
Critics of this argument have pointed out that there is little evidence that the state would be a better negotiator and have argued that such rosy financial projections aren’t based in reality.
They point to the savings claimed would be achieved by the last VEHI proposal, which was supposed to reduce costs by as much as of $75 million and compared to the reality of likely across-the-board increases property taxes.
But the broader question not addressed by this proposal boil down to these:
Who is this proposed “council of school board members?” How would they be selected? Should Board members want to have their name used in a process where they would have no real input?
Why on earth would a governor-appointed board be any better at negotiating these benefits than individual boards?
Where are the savings the proposals are supposed to generate? Proponents of this proposal are suggesting it would save the state $13 million dollars. Where is the independent scoring that validates this claim? Should we be skeptical of this assertion given the dismal history of such claims? To date, the only result of recent state initiatives to curb school healthcare costs has been overly complicated local labor negotiations, a reduction in state funding and likely increases in property taxes-- even in school systems that level fund next year.
Other states seem to have better solutions for consolidating and rationalizing health care costs for all public employees, whether employed by the state, local municipalities, state universities or local schools. Have these been fully explored? Why not?
Proposal #3: Coercing Local Boards To Achieve Staff Reductions To Achieve An Arbitrary Ratio
Like so many other VSBA proposals this year, this proposal suggests that local board members want to have unnamed Montpelier “policy-makers” set up yet another “task force”. This time the objective would be to shoehorn schools into several unspecified “categories” and interfere with school board’s management of local education staffing. coercing their districts, and taking away power from the very school boards the VSBA is tasked to represent.
What is the point and purpose of having the state set up mandatory staff-to-student ratios? And why have the state interfere?
It is proposed that Vermont “policy makers” propose various ratios and targets and provide other bureaucratic oversight of school staffing. However, as the most recent spreadsheet distributed by the VSBA makes clear, those policy makers are having trouble counting staff from school system to school system. For instances, special education services consolidated into SU’s are counted as staff by the AOE in some instances and not in others. Schools who contract out food service have lower student-to-staff ratios than schools that run their own programs. If the state cannot competently or consistently track local staffing today why should school boards give them power to set staffing over local schools?
Like so many other resolutions, it amounts to asking local school boards to declare they are not competent to set student and staff/teacher ratios without coercion and that state bureaucrats know best.Why is any of this in the best interest of Vermont school board members?
Board members should be aware that, like several other proposals this year, this proposal is being accompanied by claims that there are millions (in this case $175 million!!) to be saved if only school boards would get out of the way and obey new state mandates.
Where did this proposal come from?
It may be a coincidence, but the Koch-Funded American Legislative Council, ALEC, has regularly championed reducing education staff levels to predetermined ratios.
ALEC claims, without any real evidence, that--
“There is no immediately evident correlation between ...pupil-to-teacher ratios, fewer students per school, and a ...positive impact on educational achievement.”
This assertion and their related, unsubstantiated claims that American schools are significantly overstaffed has been repeatedly debunked by the School Superintendents Association (AASA) and other studies of public and nonprofit institutions which show that school staffing relative to those served, is on a par with hospitals and other deliverers of public services. ALEC numbers are often suspect, as is the case in Vermont where they mix public and private school tuitions together to generate an absolutely an astounding
The proposal is particularly inappropriate for schools serving Vermont’s isolated rural communities. To the extent that it is accurate at all, the AOE’s own data shows that the relative number of people needed to staff small rural school systems will almost always be higher because of the need to provide (and state-mandated!) basic services regardless of the number of pupils that attend in a given year.
The data further shows that such ratios can be drastically affected by levels of attendance that can vary year to year by as much as 10 or even in smaller school districts such as Grafton, Windham, Tinmouth, Bethel, etc. Such small schools would face insurmountable challenges meeting such arbitrary ratios. It could involve constantly laying off a significant percentage of their staff one year and finding replacements to come to these isolated communities and teach on short notice. How could such schools could provide an equitable education if they were subject to such unreasonable constraints?
We agree that school boards should make every effort to make schools as efficient as possible. School districts of comparable size might benefit from seeing how each allocates their staff in order to discover efficiencies. Most school boards would doubtless welcome information gathered by the VSBA, the state or independent organizations as to best staffing practices.
But this proposal does none of that.
It puts VSBA on record as asking school board members to cede their responsibility to staff their schools responsibly.
Proposing that the state hire another set of bureaucrats to develop arbitrary categories of schools and set potentially damaging staffing targets for each is antithetical to the entire concept of local control of education. This proposal should be rejected in its current form. The Resolutions Committee should be asked to come back with a proposal that would embrace best practices, and empower, not handcuff local school boards.
Proposal #4: Making State Retirement Buy-Outs Contingent On Reducing The Number of Teaching Staff
Once again, the school boards of the state of Vermont need to ask themselves what benefit they derive from this proposal.
As written, it creates yet another state task force that has the potential to set in motion future restrictions on local school board’s ability chose how to replenish or reduce their staff.
As most School Board members know, schools may occasionally choose to encourage early retirements as a means to adjust staffing levels, to improve productivity, or to lower local costs. Often they will put in place some sort of bridge appropriation (early buy-out) in order to facilitate this transition. While this may add to costs in one year, it frequently lowers costs -often significantly - both medium and long term as it frequently means that higher cost teachers are replaced by new teachers usually several steps lower on the pay scale.
The proposal as written would serve only to frustrate a local board’s ability to bring on newer, lower-cost or more energetic teaching staff via participation in a State funded early retirement system currently touted as an opt-in model..
The proposal being placed before school board members can easily become another state mandate. In essence it means that early retirements could only be agreed to if the position was not replaced. It has the potential to be another vehicle for the state to mandate staff reductions. In fact, it may do the opposite.
State budget hawks looking at the underfunded state retirement systems may wish to argue the benefits of this proposal, thinking that it will temporarily reduce the number of teachers seeking retirement in the short term. But the reality is this can also easily create a scenario whereby boards will see little value in encouraging early retirements. As a result, schools can end up saddled with older, higher cost staffing that all state taxpayers underwrite as such costs are shared by all communities through the mechanism of the State-wide property tax. .
In any case, this proposal is yet another case of inviting interference in local board decisions and the proposal should be tabled.
Proposal #5: Limiting What Fact Finders Can Find / Penalizing Poor Communities By Force of Statute
Anyone who has been part of a negotiations committee probably dreads the phrase, “let’s take [the issue] to fact-finding. The process is time consuming. Supposedly the fact finder is to examine the arguments of all parties, do some research of their own and offer a non-binding recommendation for mutual consideration. Frequently the process feels like it amounts to little more than comparing teacher wages or benefits in community X to the same wages and benefits in communities Y and Z.
In many ways such fact-finding is similar to the kind of research corporate personnel departments routinely conduct to determine what wages to offer prospective employees. Such businesses know that, whether the employee being sought is a plumber or a rocket scientist, the market for professional staff is largely national, or at least broadly regional in scope. There are going to be differences in wages paid for the same job across the country, or even across a small state like Vermont.
But those wages are not going to be significantly different from town to town. A business is not going to be able to pay a professional significantly less to work in a relatively poor community next door to a wealthy one on the grounds that “the cost of living in Harlem is less than it is on the Upper East Side.” If anything, it may be more difficult to attract a highly skilled professional to work in a community struggling economically. This is why the prevailing wage for certain types of doctors is higher in Rutland as opposed to higher-cost Burlington.
The proposal would force fact finders to ignore all this.
As written, it would ask school board members to recommend that 16 VSA § 2007 be changed to force fact finders to ignore all the factors that normally go into fact finding, and and ignore everything but the poverty or wealth of a local community and to set compensation recommendations accordingly.
Under this proposal fact finders would be prevented from noting that the prevailing wage for a Masters degree bearing math teacher in Vermont is $X, but instead, relying exclusively on local wealth, a fact finder in a poor community like St Johnsbury would be prevented from learning what is necessary to attract teachers from a wealthy community like Shelburne.
What possible public good would such legislation achieve?
As written it would serve to make it nearly impossible for poor communities to attract good teachers, and teachers in troubled, less attractive communities with more challenging students would actually be penalized financially for working there.
Board members may hold a wide variety of views about public sector labor unions and may welcome constructive ideas that would rationalize and streamline the process of negotiations. This proposal does none of that. It is an economically illiterate solution that limits board abilities to negotiate and doesn’t effectively solve a problem it has identified.
Proposal #6: Encouraging Vermont Officials To Involve Themselves With the Oversight of Sinking Funds Or Other Reserves
Companies, nonprofits and government agencies routinely set up sinking funds and other forms of fiscal reserves. They do so because fiscal planning of this kind is an essential tool of responsible governance.
School Boards might wish to establish reserve funds for any number of reasons, most commonly to avoid having to go out to borrow for major infrastructure improvements such as roofs, gymnasium equipment or HVAC plant. In other cases a board may roll a budget surplus into a reserve fund for the purpose of smoothing out a tax rate that can fluctuate widely from year to year as a result of changing enrollment patterns, particularly in smaller districts. More controversially, Boards may also wish to guard the operational integrity of their local schools against idiosyncratic disruptions in state and federal funding.
The ability of boards to set aside such funds is already extremely constrained. This proposal would have another sthe state set forth more regulations to constrain it further, in undefined ways.
But, to what end, ultimately? And why is extra oversight of school districts necessary?
Per state law, local school boards are required to explain to the state the amount and purpose of any reserve funds it develops, beginning in 2019. If the result of those reports shows significant fiscal mismanagement or unspecified abuse of reserve funds, then, perhaps setting up some sort of oversight might be justified.
There is no such obvious justification at present. The proposal is premature at best and it is an affront to boards because its goal seems to be to get VSBA members to state for the record, in the absence of any evidence, that they abuse reserve funds and are incapable of managing their own fiscal operations!
Boards might wish to task the VSBA, which after all began as a service operation for boards, to once again work within its own committee structure to examine best practices in this area.
When or if the state produces any evidence of abuse then guidelines may become justified.
If the school boards of the state wish to develop guidelines for their own benefit or if the state wishes to set up guidelines for all state and local governments, models such as that of New York https://www.osc.state.ny.us/localgov/pubs/lgmg/reservefunds.pdf
or Massachusetts http://www.mass.gov/dor/docs/dls/mdmstuf/technical-assistance/best-practices/reservepolicies.pdf
are readily available.
The proposal, as written, implies that Vermont education is a special source of budgetary abuse and needs special attention apart from other agencies of government.
That implication is unfair and untrue and for that reason alone the proposal needs to be rejected.
None of the VSBA resolutions this year serve to enhance the power of local school boards to do their job. None highlight the remarkable work school boards do across the state or recommend their achievements to state legislators or education officials within state government. We look forward to future years when VSBA proposals begin to focus on the stated mission of the organization. Until then, these proposals deserve to be turned down if only to emphasize that local school boards are determined to continue their mission to faithfully serve Vermont’s children, taxpayers and the general public.