In the News / June 2016

How refugees may help reduce education costs

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Times Argus article

June 19, 2016

As the community debates the merits and pitfalls of refugee resettlement in Rutland come October, one topic has created anxiety on both sides of the aisle: paying for school.

So in this week’s resettlement fact-checking column, in which we investigate a claim being made about refugees and the resettlement process, we ask: Did the Burlington school district’s budget go up $10 million in the wake of refugee resettlement?

I’ll follow that up with a discussion about how education taxes work, and why the Rutland City Public Schools district believes refugees are more likely to help push down the tax rate than they are to increase it.

Several people at public meetings have cited the $10 million figure. It even landed in a Rutland Herald story in late May, when Don Chioffi was trying get the Rutland Town Select Board to put refugee resettlement on the ballot. According to the article, Chioffi claimed $10 million referred to much the Burlington school district had spent to hire English Language Learner teachers after resettlement.

In a later interview, Chioffi acknowledged he had heard the figure from someone who had heard it, allegedly, from a Burlington school board member. He wasn’t sure what period of time it that figure covered. The board member Chioffi named did not return a phone call.

Refugee resettlement started in Vermont in 1989, and so Nathan Lavery, the finance manager over at the Burlington school district, took a look at the district’s audited statements from 1986 to 1993. Lavery said he found no “significant change in the pattern of expenditure growth.”

“There does not appear to be any factual basis for suggesting that the school budget increased $10 million in the wake of the community’s decision to accept refugees,” he said.

Lavery also provided the district’s total budget this year for its ELL program — $2.46 million. The program enrolled 535 students. He noted that ELL students are not all refugees, and that refugees do not necessarily need ELL services. The district does not track the number of refugee children it has enrolled, he said.

We are calling the $10 million figure a rumor, with little basis in fact.

Now, to property taxes. Education taxes work in a unique way in Vermont. A district’s total budget only matters insofar as it adds to the state’s total bill — which everyone, collectively, is on the hook for. But the compelling number for calculating what a town’s individual tax rate will be is how much its school district spends per pupil that year. The more cost-efficient you are, per student, the lower your district’s tax rates will be relative to other towns.

Because Vermont has seen its school-age population decline dramatically, most schools are operating under capacity. That tends to be even truer in smaller districts, where it’s difficult to right-size staff to match enrollment without cutting programming. The Rutland City Public School District has reduced capacity in recent years — but school officials say there’s definitely room for more children at current staffing levels. The only hire that the district envisions potentially making at this point is one ELL teacher, maybe even part-time, according to Superintendent Mary Moran.

That means that refugees might add pupil counts to a system that won’t necessarily require many new resources to accommodate them — pushing down the district’s spending per pupil.

“I expect that when we get more students — from anywhere — whether they be refugees or from another town, overall, that’s going to help the tax rate. That’s my expectation,” said RCPS Chief Financial Officer Peter Amons.

And while Amons can’t — and did not — make promises about how refugee students will impact a Rutland City taxpayer’s bill, we can again look northward for a clue.

Burlington’s per-pupil spending was $13,838 this year. That was lower than the state average of $14,422 — and lower than Rutland City’s per-pupil spending of $14,208. Winooski, which also has a large population of refugees (and where one third of all students are ELL) had an even lower per-pupil figure than all three: $12,896.

Moran points out that the district knows about as much as the rest of the city: that 100 refugees — 25 or 30 families — would come, though not at once, beginning in October.

“We don’t know how many (students), or when, or what that incremental time frame would be. It would be wonderful if we knew that. If we knew when, how many, what age, what the needs were. That’s probably the biggest challenge that we face,” she said.

So things could change, and the district is upfront that they expect challenges. But right now, they think those problems are more likely to be about culture, language barriers and planning ahead than about money.

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