A conversation with the state auditor on education costs in Vermont

Editor’s note: This is Part 3 in our Debate for Vermont Series.

By Jay Eshelman

In a recently initiated online discussion with State Auditor Doug Hoffer regarding the coming 8-cent increase in Vermont’s statewide education taxes, I suggested checking out the Agency of Education on behalf of Vermont taxpayers. The discussion went like this:

I said: “Doug, you just published an expose on the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s failure to enforce environmental laws. How about checking out the Agency of Education on behalf of Vermont taxpayers?”

He said: “As for the Agency, we’ve already done two performance audits.”

I said: “You do a ‘performance audit’ of the methods the AOE uses to calculate ‘equalized enrollments’ (its method for padding Vermont’s decreasing student population) and all you had to say was the ‘Data Quality Could Be Enhanced.’ And before that, you discover that ‘with limited competitive bidding, AOE may be missing opportunities for cost savings and improved contractor performance.'”

I added: “What were the sum totals of these irregular contracts? About $600-$700 thousand. This out of a total of $36.9 million awarded that year to multiple state agencies under the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTTELC), a four-year grant administered jointly by the federal Departments of Education and of Health and Human Services.”

He said: “If you have something meaningful (and factual) to say, please share that with us.”

OK, here’s my recommendation.

How about the state auditor compare the Vermont Agency of Education’s cost per student with the aggregate cost per student of all supervisory unions in Vermont and the aggregate cost per student in each school district combined?  The Vermont Agency of Education is implementing consolidation under Act 46 ostensibly to reduce education costs. How will anyone know the level and detail of success this process creates without knowing the current benchmark?

Photo courtesy of Hoffer for Auditor

Vermont State Auditor Doug Hoffer

For example, the AOE has more than 160 employees with a $9.3 million budget and serves 88,000 students statewide. That’s $105 per student. Concurrently, my Windham Northeast Supervisory Union has a $12.2 million budget serving 1,244 students. That’s approximately an additional $9,800 per student. Furthermore, each school district within the WNESU spends about $19,500 per student (actually budgeted in addition to its supervisory union assessments.

Added together, that’s a bit less than $30,000 spent on each K-12 student.

Aren’t you at all curious about these costs and the potential overlap of services provided — not to mention the investment result that only half of Vermont’s students achieve academic proficiency and still about 90 percent graduate.

There are, for example, special education staff in the Vermont Agency of Education, and in each supervisory union and in each school in each district. There are IT staff in each organization and administrative assistants in each organization to support that staff. And so it goes within the various education departments of each organization.

Can this be a reasonable education investment for this level of academic performance? As reported in the VT Digger article, education taxes are going up 8 cents again this year despite Act 46 consolidations and declining enrollments. Why?

Of course, the final analysis will be comparing these public school education costs to the costs of independent schools. In my district, for example, we have several independent schools — including their administrators and special education services — that charge about half of the aggregate cost of the public school system.

Wouldn’t it be wise to know why?

Jay Eshelman is a former school board director and business owner living in Vermont.

7 thoughts on “A conversation with the state auditor on education costs in Vermont

  1. Here’s an update of my aggregate per student cost analysis for those interested in checking out their local district costs.

    First, my assessment of Supervisory Union cost per students (those in addition to the school district cost) is closer to $3500/student. Recent transfers of Special Education services, for example, to the SU books and assessed to each school district, were not accurately listed as SU assessments in our local financial statement. So the total aggregate cost per student for school district, SU and AOE is about $22,500 per student.

    Second: I have not been able to determine where the $36.9 million referenced by the State Auditor and awarded in 2013 to multiple state agencies under the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTTELC) was spent. So, another recommendation for the State Auditor is to follow that money. And, surely, there are other grants passing through the VT AOE that we never see. I, for one, would like to see a list of all education funding (public and private grants) passing through the AOE in a given year.

  2. Somebody needs to look at this from 30,000 feet.You are educating young children in the basics of education.This is not rocket science,so why are the teachers being paid like rocket scientists?

    These are $40k/yr. jobs paying over $100k with the ungodly benefits.Have we looked at our side negotiating against the unions? Me thinks there be infiltrators within our ranks.

    • Jerry, some of us have been looking at this issue from 30,000 feet for quite awhile. The problem isn’t that teachers make too much money or that there’s a teacher union. The problem is that there are no alternatives. The public education system is a monopoly, with all of the inherent problems that deem monopolies illegal in the private sector. Get rid of the monopoly and the education system will fix itself. It’s just that simple.

      How do you get rid of the monopoly? With School Choice vouchers. And Vermont already has in place a School Choice voucher system that’s used in 90 or so school districts.

      It’s called Tuitioning. For example, read:
      16 V.S.A. § 822. School district to maintain public high schools or pay tuition
      http://legislature.vermont.gov/statutes/section/16/021/00822

  3. Typical, . Need money? No problem, raise taxes. When oh when will someone ask the dumb question? How can we cut spending?

    • It depends on the school district. But in Westminster, for example, we pay a $1.5377 tax rate. So an 8 cent rise in the State education tax rate is a 5.2% increase.

      • Jay Eshelman needs to be commended for investigating his local education costs and for his attempt to inspire inquisitiveness about the matter, state wide, in the State Auditor.
        And Mr. Eshelman correctly identifies the monopolistic education system in Vermont as the crux of its problem. Monopolies don’t share information about costs. They don’t have to. Vermont school children are stuck for the most part, especially if their family lacks financial means, in schools they have not chosen but for which the residents of Vermont remain on the hook in increasing amounts.
        Costs should be of concern, certainly to those who pay. But if the system is skewed so that the majority can escape the larger slices to their income, the show will lumber on.
        And, there are disincentives to bothering about costs at all. After all, haven’t you heard some say..……”what do costs matter, anyway, when you’re doing G-d’s work?” Or….”in my opinion, concerning yourself about costs makes you nastily materialistic”, or…..”all that talk about costs? It reminds me of the market. Ugh!”
        Yet, costs, the ones we know about, are our friends. Why? Because each of us, as individuals wrestling with costs, can then begin to regain our control and decision making power.
        Collectivists instinctively know this and absolutely dread the thought of having to reveal the price of anything. When Bernie Sanders offers free health care and free college tuition, he just proves the point.
        I wonder what we can do to help incentivize our Vermont State Auditor?

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