Response to Free Press Budget Editorial

Hi neighbors — I wrote up a response to the Free Press editorial this morning regarding the District’s school budget presentations. I have submitted it as an “It’s My Turn,” but I wanted to pass it on to the neighborhood in case the paper decides not to publish it.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

Regards,
Fred Lane
Ward 5 School Commissioner
12 Catherine Street
FLane@bsdvt.org
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After reading this morning’s editorial (“Give voters complete school budget picture”), I began thinking about how frustrating it must be for the members of the Free Press editorial board to go grocery shopping. As they reach for a bottle of soda or a box of cereal, do they grumble that the price tag does not reflect the federal grain subsidies that lower the cost of corn syrup? Do they storm into the manager’s office each week, demanding that the price tag on milk list every dollar of industry support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture? Or, like most rational consumers, are they more concerned about what they are actually charged at the cash register?

The District has hardly kept its outside funding sources a secret; they’ve been a topic of conversation at most Board meetings, nearly every Finance Committee meeting, and many public budget presentations, and I know that the Free Press has received numerous press releases over the last several years touting new grants. The District works hard to develop and maintain additional funding sources because they improve the quality of the city’s public education with minimal impact to the local taxpayer.

And that, ultimately, is why the District presents the budget as it does: at the end of the day, the question on the mind of most voters is the size of the bill when they check out at the municipal cash register. While the total amount the District spends on each student may be interesting, what voters most want to know is what the cost is to them each year and whether they’re getting a good deal for their local tax dollars. By the Free Press’s own calculation, they unquestionably are: a quality education for the city’s children at 40% below list price.

Some may grumble, as the Free Press did, that the District makes use of the equalized pupil concept in its budget calculation, rather than bodies in the seats. The state equalized pupil formula is a frank acknowledgment of a simple truth: that students have widely-ranging educational and social needs, and the costs of meeting those needs vary accordingly. A very good argument can be made that the weighting formula used by the state is actually inadequate, that it doesn’t properly reflect the true additional cost, for instance, of educating an English language learner.

That’s a discussion for another day. At the very least, however, dividing Burlington’s equalized pupil figure into the local budget amount enables a voter in Burlington to reasonably compare his or her school spending cost with the amount spent per equalized pupil by surrounding towns, most of which have student populations that are less diverse and with less pressing needs. By using that same formula each year–which I know has been true for the eight years I’ve been on the Board–voters can meaningful gauge the increase in local spending from one year to the next, and compare the Burlington School District’s relative rate of growth compared to other Chittenden County schools. Our city schools have been and continue to be a bargain.

If the Free Press editorial board genuinely believes that the Board’s focus on the local cost of school education is somehow misleading, then I respectfully suggest that they turn their attention to area supermarkets. There are a lot of price stickers that will need to be changed.

Fred Lane
Ward 5 School Commissioner
Chair, Board Finance Committee

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