MONTPELIER, Vt. — In what looks to be a repeat of last year’s budget showdown between the Vermont NEA and Gov. Phil Scott’s administration, a statement released Friday by the governor’s office reiterated that a statewide teachers health care contract is necessary to alleviate the education fund’s $58 million deficit.
In it, the governor indicated he is willing to work with lawmakers on securing one-time funds, which would fix the current budget but could result in another deficit next year.
Last year’s budget stand-off ended in a veto session and an agreement that allowed the teachers union to continue negotiating health care contracts at the local level. One-time funds were also used last year, taken from an end-of-year surplus along with an education reserve fund.
According to the press release, recent testimony confirms that had the Legislature committed to the statewide contract at this point last year, Vermont could have secured $26 million in estimated savings.
“Had they agreed to it, this plan would have allowed us to lower statewide property tax rates and invest more in education, without asking school employees to pay more,” the statement reads.
Under the current system, 50 different school health care contracts have been negotiated separately. The administration argues that this approach is inefficient and a burden on taxpayers.
However, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, and Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, are suggesting that savings may be found from other sources. They have said recent Act 46 school merger arrangements could increase efficiencies and create savings, and they also suggest that upcoming changes to special education funding formulas could also save money.
The Vermont NEA has come to the table and proposes ending the Vermont Education Health Initiative, a benefits pool for their workers and families. Their proposal is to replace it with a commission which would take over the administration of health benefits.
In a back-and-forth blame game, the NEA attributes at least 250 unpaid healthcare claims to the failings of the initiative. Meanwhile, the president of the initiative, Laura Soares, blames the NEA-recommended local vendor Future Planning for the unpaid bills.
This is not the first time the Scott administration has attempted to tackle out-of-control education spending. After Town Meeting Day, when most of the school budgets were voted on, Scott called for an additional $40 million in cuts to school budgets.
To help close the $58 million deficit, Scott also has proposed changing Vermont’s student-to-staff ratio. The current ratio is close to 4-to-1, but the governor wants school districts to work towards a 5-to-1 ratio via an attrition policy. Vermont has lost 30,000 students in the past 25 years, and enrollment continues to shrink at a rate of about 1,000 students annually.
When Scott was elected, he asked all school boards to level-fund their budgets, even after many school boards had finalized their budgeting for the year. The governor’s request met stiff opposition and was never implemented.
But pressures for change keep mounting higher. Health insurance premiums are expected to go up 16.8 percent for the next school year, even after a 9 percent jump last year.
The administration hopes to have a more detailed outline of its current proposal sometime next week. The statement from the governor’s office says the administration “will be presenting a path forward” that simultaneously “stabilizes education tax rates and increases educational opportunities for our children.”