False choices and the art, hazards of distraction

  • Published in MyView

Our new unified district’s leadership is framing a singular choice: Shutter some primary schools and save Harwood, or cling to them and doom it. Former Harwood board members, on the new unified board and off, are at the forefront framing this choice and disparaging those advocating for more community input and retaining our community-based primary school model as parochial and emotional.

Is this our only choice? Should pragmatic, fact-based people, concerned about students, taxpayers and their community, buy into this notion that we must cannibalize our high-performing primary schools to restore Harwood? Would cannibalizing primary schools effectively contain property taxes or stop the exodus of students from Harwood?

Let’s give the matter some logical analysis:

  1. Has our support for our primary schools “shorted” Harwood? None of Harwood’s budgets over the past eight years have failed. The Harwood Board has consistently passed the budgets they asked for. Harwood, just like our primary schools, has enjoyed funding slightly above the statewide average. Our primary schools’ lower costs per pupil have buffered the tax impact of Harwood spending as property tax rates reflect a blending of the two. Spending choices have left some of schools, most notably Harwood and Warren, with seriously deferred maintenance, but one can’t defend through data the idea that they were driven by inadequate support or inefficiencies at our primary schools. There’s no either/or funding mechanism that could rationalize blaming elementary school investments for poor performance or deferred maintenance at Harwood.
  2. Is opposition to shuttering primary schools merely emotional? Primary school investments are investments in each of our perspective towns and they are the largest annual investments. Maintaining these investments, funded through tax dollars, serves the interests of each town and the property owners in those towns, as well as their children. Does anyone believe that defunct town buildings and long bus rides for young children are good for community vitality and don’t undermine a community’s ability to attract young families? A school community can decline to a point of being unsustainable and not in the interests of children, either because of exceptionally high costs or inadequate opportunities. However, neither condition applies in the current proposed school closures. The targeted primary schools are top performers statewide, offer exceptional opportunities and climate, and are not consuming a disproportionate amount of per pupil investment, either within our district or statewide. The resistance is not irrational but about public interests, student interests and tax equity.
  3. Would closing our primary schools contain our property taxes? To evaluate that, we need to consider what is driving our affordability crisis and what is required to contain it. Our tax rates are set by the state to raise sufficient funds to cover statewide education spending. Statewide spending remains entirely uncontained and continues to spiral upward. As we have seen in several of our town school districts, a local district can hold spending flat or even reduce spending and taxes will still go up. Act 60/68, Vermont’s statewide education funding system, continues to operate as a tragedy of the commons. If you don’t graze your own cattle on the commons, you undermine local investments and competitiveness, but the grass on the commons still gets decimated. Property tax reform is the only thing that can restore affordability in Vermont. Furthermore, as calibration of local tax rates is not based upon total expenditures but spending per pupil under Act 60/68, any changes or behavior that ignores what families want for their children and which drives further enrollment decline will translate to higher tax rates, even if we invest fewer resources. When families speak up and say that they do not want their kids on long bus rides and they came for their intimate, community-based schools, leadership should be listening, not ignoring and disparaging them. The last thing our taxpayers need is for the outflow at Harwood to extend into our primary schools as well.
  4. Would shuttering primary schools even reduce our local spending? Shuttering existing schools would require that we build new capacity – and far more than was reported by Superintendent Nease. Nease misrepresented excess capacity, excluding all early education students in her pupil counts, even though these students are currently educated in our schools and utilize nearly all our services and resources. We do want these students in our schools, as these pupil counts reduce our tax rates and access to early interventions and supports in our schools is a cost-effective way to deliver impactful and mandated services. If we close schools, we would need to build new capacity, which would drive up tax rates, divert education investments and distract from education itself. Regardless of those considerable, unspecified and unbound construction costs, we should not expect lower operational expenses just because we move kids into larger schools, as we haven’t seen such efficiencies in our district or statewide data. When local school data was still somewhat reliable, reported to the state and towns to set our tax rates, it showed that our largest elementary school, which had class sizes at the state maximum, did not operate at a lower cost per pupil than our smallest school. Pretending that class size is a rational or accepted solitary measure of efficiency or equity undermines our ability to contain spending and fairly distribute resources. Too, we would be wise to pay attention to recent experience. Last year all teacher reductions in our district saved us nothing, as they were more than offset by administration expansion, as predicted by opponents of Act 46. No, shuttering existing primary schools is very unlikely to translate to reduced local spending and it certainly doesn’t guarantee it.

Not only is a false choice being framed by former Harwood board members and current leadership, but a conflict is being sown for a clear reason – the same reason that Trump uses the trusty political tactics of reframing and attacking to distract and avoid engaging on legitimate issues. Those responsible for nearly a decade of Harwood decisions, undermining student choices, financial transparency, performance reporting, and teacher, student and community voice, do not want to be held accountable for the shocking decline in Harwood performance and the current exodus of students. Diverting attention from serious issues at Harwood by sowing conflict across our unified district with false choices and irrational school closure proposals will only magnify negative impacts on students, taxpayers and our communities. It’s time we start understanding our real problems and taking steps to address them. We can start by asking those who know them best: our students and our teachers.

Spear lives in Fayston.