In an earnest effort-I'm trying really, really, hard-to stay au courant with, and au milieu de the elevated intellectual climate for which the gentry-left (plural noun) of Norwich, Vt., expect to be known and appreciated, I'll characterize as, a ballon d'essai, the following quote from School Board member Geoffrey Vitt as reported in the Jan. 8 issue of the Norwich-area Valley News. Here it is: "...Cutting too much out of the budget could lead parents to send their children to private school, and... exacerbate school funding problems."
If the trial balloon (ballon d'essai) symbolism dating from the Great Depression years, and the then-new-use of weather balloons, doesn't work for you perhaps the more recent "let's run it up the flagpole to see who salutes it" imagery-supposedly spawned in the Madison Avenue ad agency culture of the 1950s-will.
Either way, it's a new tactic in the please-vote-for-our-tax-increasing- school-budget strategy in the annual campaign on this subject.
Until now, the argument has been couched in terms of "We're doing wonderful and excellent things for the inadequately prepared children you've dumped on us. If you vote against our barely enlarged budget, over which we have little control, it's because you're too cheap and stingy, too intellectually challenged to comprehend and appreciate our efforts. So if you don't vote 'yes' we'll just bring it back iterum iterumque until you finally get it right." Whew!
In Benson, Vt., in the mid-1990s, school officials brought it back a dozen times; it never gained voter acceptance and so the local school board and educrats went to the Vermont Legislature instead for approval. They got it! So much for the old rural Vermont legend of local control.
Unlike Benson, where the arrogant school board demanded, and got, higher-level Golden Dome adult supervision, in the burg of Norwich the tactic is a cost-threat: "Approve our spending or your taxes will go up even more because you've caused our enrollment to go down even more".
In recent years, like most Vermont school districts, Norwich has responded to an enrollment down-trend with a staff up-trend.
On the assumption voiced by board member Mr. Vitt, that enrollment declines were caused by too-large classes, the Norwich average was actually over 13 in 2006. The board approved class size reduction to below 12 in 2008.
Last year's numbers aren't available from the school report website, because the Vermont Ed Department has decided it would be imprudent to continue to furnish such data for public inspection.
Over the same years, enrollment has shrunk from 306 to 297, while teaching staff and instructional aides increased from 41.2 to 42.5, and the total budget went from $8.9MM to $13.3MM. That's a 49 percent spending increase, which, interestingly, the board ascribes to a change in the Common Level of Appraisal-thus causing a 17 percent tax increase in the unusual absence of a proposed spending increase.
Clearly, the previous 49 percent spending boost wasn't enough, in Mr. Vitt's view, to prevent "driving students out of this school". And equally clearly, my view has been wrong all along.
I had (incorrectly, I now admit) ascribed Vermont's so-called "brain-drain" of adults in the 25-44 age cohort, as documented by economist Art Woolf, to the pressures on younger members of the work force to flee the Green Mountain State in search of better career opportunity and pay; also the corollary (unjustified) assumption that, when such young adults leave, they take their children with them.
Now, under the Vitt thesis, I can clearly see my error: it has been the understandably dissatisfied third graders wanting out, even across state lines, of their maliciously overcrowded and underfunded classrooms; plus dragging their educationally insensitive and unwilling parents with them.
By extension, it's been the dissatisfied 10k or so students, fleeing the under-spending Vermont schools and causing the enrollment drop from over 100k to just over 90k, which has caused the brain-drain, and not the State economic situation. And the brain-drain has happened in the public schools, not in the workplace. Who knew?
As you should expect, even a casual glance at the student test scores reveals the achievement superiority of Norwich grade-schoolers: on both Vermont DRA and NECAP tests, almost all scored "proficient" or better, well above State averages, but there's still a few -in single-digit percentage-points-- who didn't.
The spend-more point: the students were cruelly failed by the Marion W. Cross School in which, because of large class-size and grossly inadequate instructional investment, they were left to flounder. And they have statistical proof: from 2006 to 2008, as a result of board budgeting priorities, the percentage of spending allocated to "direct instruction" went from 69 to 61percent. The Common Level of Appraisal numbers weren't even involved. For shame.
Former Vermont architect Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.