SCHOOL finance and teacher salaries - subjects that don't grab the attention of most people - are likely to cause the most excitement in this small state capital since the Winooski River was blocked by ice floes last winter and overflowed its banks, flooding downtown Montpelier.
At issue is a proposal to switch the negotiation of teacher salaries from Vermont's 250 local school districts to a conference room under Montpelier's gold-leaf capitol dome. Its backers say the plan would lift the burden of collective bargaining over salaries and major fringe benefits from local school boards, free them to consider education-reform issues, and provide a basis for substantial local property-tax relief.
Not least, the proposal - now being worked into legislation - is intended to address the inequities between wealthy school districts and poorer ones. The equity issue is being debated and litigated across the United States.
Under the Vermont proposal, responsibility for paying teachers' salaries would shift to the state. Local tax revenues would still pay for maintenance of buildings and other regular expenses, though these are minor compared with salaries and benefits. The state, of course, would have to come up with new revenues to shoulder its new responsibility.
The driving force behind the plan, Vermont House of Representatives Speaker Ralph Wright, is himself a high-school teacher in Bennington, far south of Montpelier. But the union that represents most of Mr. Wright's colleagues in education, the Vermont branch of the National Education Association (NEA), is fervently opposed to the plan. It has rallied union members to protest the proposal and fired off bulletins under the heading "Winter storm warning."
Moving the salary negotiations to the state capital would mean the destruction of collective-bargaining rights won by teachers in 1968, says Marlene Burke, president of the Vermont NEA. "What they're doing is changing the way that education has done business in this state for 20 years," she says. "This won't right the woes in our schools today."
What about the property-tax squeeze felt by taxpayers in Vermont as elsewhere? Ms. Burke would like to see the state keep its hands off the process of setting teachers' salaries and instead adopt a much-enhanced aid system to relieve the local property-tax burden.
Not a man to shy away from a fight, Speaker Wright rejects the union's arguments. "I pay $380 a year in union dues myself," he says, "and I'd fight for their right to strike." But he's more concerned about a "strike" by taxpayers if current property-tax trends aren't reversed.
The union's professional negotiators have an advantage over local school officials they deal with, Wright says: "School boards keep getting the short end of the stick. If we don't do something we will be faced with people screaming, `We won't take it anymore.'" He sees looming over Vermont the specter of California's tax-capping Proposition 13 and Massachusetts's Prop 2-1/2, with the fiscal challenges they caused.
Joe Moore, a local school board member in Montpelier, largely agrees with the legislative initiative. "I think the current arrangement prevents boards from dealing with educational issues. Contracts and budgets take up the bulk of their time, and they don't know how to deal with parents and teachers on real school issues." He argues that under the current collective-bargaining system, virtually every town in the state is presented with the same contract worked out by the statewide teachers' union. So why
not take that negotiation to the state level? he asks.
Mr. Moore's views are not shared by all school-board members, however. Ann Wynia chairs the board in Pomfret, a village of a few hundred people in central Vermont. The Wright plan threatens local control over schools, she says. "The farther away from here the money gets, the less effective it gets," Mrs. Wynia asserts. Her town has a close relationship with its teachers, she says, and the bargaining over salaries and other issues isn't contentious. "I'd hate to see that opportunity to talk to them taken away from us."
Perry Johnston, a professor of education at the University of Vermont, cautions Speaker Wright and his legislative allies not to underestimate the kinds of concerns voiced by Wynia.
"The opposition will not come from teachers alone once the proposal is really out there," he says. Professor Johnston sees three sources of possible opposition: the local-control issue, people's lack of faith that state government will follow through on its commitments, and doubts about Wright's contention that his plan will free local boards to take up school reform and innovation.
On the last point, Johnston mentions a recent report, "Governing Public Schools," by the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington. One of the authors of the report, Jacqueline P. Danzberger, says her findings indicated that, nationwide, local school boards have not been engines of reform, even in states that already deal with teacher salaries and benefits at the state level. In rural areas, she adds, boards' preference for the status quo has tended to thwart reform.
Back in Montpelier, such objections are not likely to slow the momentum behind steering salary and benefit negotiations stateward. David Larsen, chairman of the House education committee, is spending long days putting a bill into final shape. Mr. Larsen is also a teacher. The Legislature's 180 members include more teachers than lawyers.
Larsen acknowledges that some of his fellow educators back home in Wilmington, Vt., view him as a traitor for backing the Wright plan. But he believes the process of shaping the Speaker's idea into legislation will address some of the concerns coming from teachers. Under the evolving plan, a number of important issues - such as working conditions and the availability of time for career development - would remain negotiable at the local level. Local appeals boards would handle many kinds of grievances.
How would the state enhance its revenues to pay for teacher salaries and benefits? Wright has in mind, among other options, a statewide property tax on businesses and second homes and the installation of new "tiers" in the state's income tax. This would be more progressive than reliance on the property tax, he says, and only the people who can afford a heavier tax burden will get one.
NEA president Burke has her doubts. She figures the plan, which includes a process for bringing lower-paid teachers up to current pay levels in wealthier districts, would cost a good deal more than the current system.
Wright's plan won't make it through the Legislature before this year's four-month session ends this month. At the earliest, it could be implemented in 1995.