Lawmakers weigh costs of school consolidation

MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont House Education Committee is “up to our eyeballs in education policy,” committee chairman Rep. David Sharpe told a group of around 40 at the Legislative Breakfast at the Middlebury American Legion hall on Monday. The Bristol Democrat said that changes to the way Vermont schools are governed and financed is high on the legislative agenda.

“It’s the state’s responsibility to get this done but in respect for generations of local control, we’re trying to do this within a context of allowing local communities to put together governance models that work best for their community and region of the state,” he told the group, who had braved slippery and snowy road conditions to get to the breakfast.

The first attempt at crafting an education reform bill calls for fewer school districts, the phasing out of small school grants and simpler explanations for the property tax implications of school budgets to voters, VTDigger.org reported. The House Education Committee last week began looking at a 27-page draft of a bill that would also prevent any legislative mandate that would increase education property taxes this year.

Unlike last year’s failed legislation that would have mandated that districts merge into larger regional districts, the draft language allows for alternatives if, after studying and analyzing the regional district concept, a local board decides it is “inadvisable to change the district’s governance structure.”

The committee has taken testimony from dozens of witnesses on everything from declining enrollments in the state’s public schools — which have dipped to less than 80,000, the latest figures show — to concern over rising education property tax rates, and the complex issues facing today’s schools, from special education concerns to inequality of opportunity.

Sharpe on Monday said his committee has received more than 100 suggestions for reforming how the state approaches pre-K through grade 12. Vermont has 13 different education governance models around the state and while he said a “cookie cutter” approach to governing school districts would likely fail, the alternative, according to a draft of the bill released last Thursday, would be to put the decision in the hands of the school districts and communities.

“This says we expect school districts and communities to come up with alternate proposals,” he said. “If they do not, they need to have a vote of the community that they are not going to change anything they are doing. If they do nothing, the supervisory union they are a part of will become part of a larger school district.”

Suggestions for how big those districts should be have ranged from slightly larger than their current size to one district for the entire state, he said.

Sharpe also said the Education Committee is considering how to calculate and report taxes. The draft of the bill would simplify education tax rates to make clear to voters how their property taxes would be affected by the budgets approved on Town Meeting Day.

“It doesn’t change who pays but it brings more transparency and clarity to how we raise money and how much is going to be due on your tax bill,” he said.

George Gardner, a school board member for the Ferrisburgh Central School and Vergennes Union High School, at the breakfast took issue with the high cost of education, specifically that of special education.

“Special education is not an educational problem, it’s a social problem and social services should be the ones that are taking care of the cost of special education,” he said.

“We’re already paying a Cadillac price,” he continued. “I’m not sure that we’re getting the Cadillac result but we are paying the price. All the other states manage to educate their children for less than we do. We have to do something about that expenditure.”

BUSINESS CLIMATE

Bill Scott, who moderated discussion at the breakfast, asked lawmakers how they could improve Vermont’s business climate.

Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, said expanding apprenticeship opportunities in the state and Addison County is critical to keeping people employed. Bristol Republican Rep. Fred Baser, a member of the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development, added that the lack of talented young employees in the state’s manufacturing businesses, which provide jobs for 12 percent of Vermonters, can be attributed to a disconnect between expectations of the jobs and the education required to fill the positions.

Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, said that high taxes, regulations for businesses looking to expand and high electric rates are all hindrances to business growth.

Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, encouraged representatives to look for more local options for boosting business, including restoring passenger rail travel from Rutland to Burlington and a roundabout on Route 7 at the north end of Middlebury village. She also mentioned a feasibility study on the use of 330 state-owned acres between Ferrisburgh and Vergennes as a source of potential business growth.

“It may end with what it’s being used for now is fine, but it’s an opportunity that we saw using our state property to invest in our communities’ business worlds moving forward,” she said.

RECOVERY CENTERS

Those looking for insight on how the tight state budget would affect various programs and services also sought information at Monday’s legislative breakfast.

Bill Brim, executive director of the Turning Point Center of Addison County, said the Middlebury center saw 847 people sign in for recovery support last month and 2,540 visits per quarter. Brim asked representatives if recovery centers like his would continue to be supported, and how the House Appropriations Committee would evaluate funding programs as the Legislature faces a budget deficit of nearly $100 million.

Rep. Lanpher, a member of that committee, replied that while recovery centers have demonstrated a strong return on the taxpayers’ investment, groups requesting money from the state treasury should expect funding equal to what they previously received or less.

“It’s not that the expansion of your work is a bad idea, it’s what we can afford to do right now,” she said.

Lanpher added there is little low-hanging fruit remaining, when it comes to making state budget cuts, and the only decisions left to be made are the difficult ones.

“There are tough choices on the cuts and tough choices when we have to think about raising taxes. Both of them are as hard a choice as anyone can make,” she said. “We all look at our neighbors and we’ve been out door-to-door. We’re not comfortable with raising taxes or adding to that burden in any way whatsoever. But we do have to recognize our services and our responsibilities as a state government to provide those services.”

Editor’s note: Amy Ash Nixon of VTDigger.org contributed to this story.

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