Study: Staffing drives budgets
By LOUIS PORTER Vermont Press Bureau | June 25,2007
MONTPELIER — When Hugh Kemper retired from his job on Wall Street and moved full time to Londonderry he planned on taking it easy.
"I was sitting up here doing what you are supposed to do, growing roses," said Kemper, who logged 31 years working for J.P. Morgan.
Instead, Kemper ended up on the board of his local school and that led him to doing an analysis of state education spending that ended up being more than 30 pages thick.
"It has been fairly clear why costs have gone up so much and this was an attempt to document that," Kemper said.
His conclusion is that the state simply has more school staff than it can afford.
While enrollment in kindergarten through 12th grade has declined by nearly 10 percent during the past decade, total staff numbers have increased by more than 20 percent. Per pupil spending grew from $6,073 in 1990 to $13,664 in 2006, according to his findings.
Most of the spending on the nearly $1.5 billion spent on education in the state — between 70 percent and 85 percent depending on the study — is the cost of salaries, benefits and other staff expenditures.
"The tax consequences of this thing are no longer amusing. They are too big, they are hurting too many people," he said.
Some of the ground in Kemper's report has been trod before. An analysis done by two consultants, Nicholas Rockler and Thomas Kavet, finds similar increases in spending and similar "cost drivers." They included those findings in a report they wrote for Vermont Business Roundtable and the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce.
For instance, while statewide enrollment dropped 10 percent since 1997, total educational expenditures grew by $400 million, a 50 percent increase.
Kavet and Rockler's study found that the number of teachers, but not how much they are paid, is one of the main reasons behind relatively high per-pupil spending in Vermont.
While student-to-teacher ratios in Vermont are among the lowest in the country, the state ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of average teacher salaries.
Kavet is now in the process of refining and continuing that work for the Legislature, boring down to the supervisory union and individual school level to see what works where, why, and if it could be moved to other districts.
"The analysis (Kemper) wrote seemed to be pretty accurate to me," said economist Art Woolf, who heads the Vermont Council on Economic Education at the University of Vermont, and contributes to the www.vermonttiger.com Internet diary where Kemper's report is posted.
"It's not hard to figure out. We have a lot of staff members including teachers. I think it is because Act 60 and Act 68 essentially divorced the spending decisions from the impact of those spending decisions."
Lawmakers passed and Gov. James Douglas signed into law a bill this year that requires voters to approve a split school budget in above-average spending districts that have budgets growing faster than a factor of inflation plus one percent. The compromise left few entirely satisfied with the results.
It is no surprise that staffing is what costs money in a school system, said Joel Cook, executive director of the Vermont-National Education Association.
Without a more comprehensive look at specific schools and areas of the state such reports are of little benefit, he added.
"The entire analysis is based on statewide data," Cook said. "If all you ever do is examine information on a statewide basis it tends to confuse rather than enlighten policy makers."
In addition, Vermont's rural nature and the fact that its population is spread out with small schools is one of the major reasons for the size of its education staff, Cook said.
"We have the second smallest population to governor ratio in the nation. Nobody is suggesting we need fewer governors," Cook said. "If local people think their school is staffed too well they are in the position to control it."
And, Cook pointed out, numbers from the most recent school year show that total education staff is on the decline, a process likely to continue with or without legislative changes this year, he said.
Still, Kemper said, it will take a long time for small declines to lower staff levels to where they should be. School population peaked at 106,341 pupils in the 1996-97 school year with 15,555 staff people. But by the 2005-06 school year there were only 96,636 pupils and 19,069 staff people.
Much of that increase is because of special education by some estimates.
Vermont students typically do very well when compared to other states when compared by standardized test results.
But those results don't look so impressive if you do the "apples-to-apples" comparison of test scores among Vermont's overwhelmingly white population and the results from only white students in other states, Kemper said.
"Demographics play a huge role in the performance of the other states," Kemper said. "When you look at the demographics, Vermont comes out considerably different. In fact its (performance) is mediocre. The money we have spent has not bought us anything."
It should be remembered that standardized test results are only one measure of a school system's success and demographics only one factor in evaluating it, Cook said.
"Our public schools are providing a whole lot more to our kids in Vermont communities than you can see on standardized tests," he said.
Kemper's conclusion, that staff costs are driving education spending, is not a surprise to Sen. Don Collins, D-Franklin, chairman of the Education Committee, a former school administrator and current school board member.
"If you are really looking at cost reductions in school budgets the only realistic place to go is staff reductions," Collins said. "If you are going after dollars it is really personnel."
His conclusions may not be entirely a surprise, but one thing that is unusual is how Kemper came to do his analysis.
Asked by several of his friends, he ran for and won a seat on the Flood Brook Union School, which educates children from several towns, including Londonderry, from kindergarten through eighth grade.
His work on the board had been met with two reactions in his community and across the state. First, there were those who accused him of being "anti-kid and anti-education," Kemper said.
"I have got two grandchildren at Flood Brook and two more on the way," he said. "I am a great supporter of education."
The other reaction was that people said there needed to be a study of why costs were increasing. That prompted him to research and write his report.
"I am trying to affect change here as constructively as I can, trying to get the facts out so we can minimize the emotional part of the equation," he said. "The entrenched interests are obviously going to push back hard on this and say, 'he doesn't know what he is talking about.'"
As for Kemper, he will either continue on the school board after next March, or return to his golf game.
"It will be quite interesting to see whether I am re-elected," he said.
Contact Louis Porter at firstname.lastname@example.org.