Time running out at Statehouse for education reform bill

MIDDLEBURY — Local lawmakers on Monday were unsure whether a sweeping bill calling for expansion of public school districts would receive final legislative approval before the 2014 session concludes in about three weeks.
The bill in question is H.883, which allows the state’s current 282 school to voluntarily realign into around 50 expanded K-12 districts. Each school district would be governed by a single board and operate on a single budget.
The initiative is being touted as a way to deliver education in a more efficient and cost-effective manner. Opponents are concerned that such a change could result in a push to close or consolidate small community schools.
“I’m concerned about the implications (of the bill), especially for a small town like Weybridge,” said Fran Putnam of Weybridge. “Before we totally throw the baby out with the bathwater, we really need to think about, ‘What is the problem we’re trying to solve and what is the goal here, and is this the best way to do it?’”
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, said H.883 came about as a result of school taxes, which he acknowledged are “high” in Vermont at the same time the state’s school population is in decline. While Sharpe said recent studies have shown Vermont has one of the “fairest” education taxation systems in the country, lawmakers recognize the need to reduce the financial burden on those who pay the freight and at the same time tailor school programming to recognize that graduates are competing for jobs on a global, not regional, stage.
Sharpe, a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, noted H.883 was recently passed out of the House Education Committee by an 11-0 vote. It was next taken up by Ways and Means, which stipulated in the bill that a “design committee” that would work on implementation of H.883 would have to hold 10 public hearings and visit stakeholders in every supervisory union in the state over a two-year period while doing its work.
“(H.883) is an effort to bring new, better opportunities for our students, and do it at a reasonable cost,” Sharpe said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison and the Senate majority whip, said she and her colleagues are not sold on the bill.
“It’s not that we feel that (H.883) is necessarily a bad plan that’s coming from the House, but I’ve served on the school board here in Weybridge … and I don’t see anything new in the bill,” Ayer said.
She noted on Monday that H.883 had not yet passed the House.
“We have three weeks, we hope, left in the session and it’s going to take a week or a week and a half to get (the bill) out of the House,” she said. “That leaves five-person committees in the Senate — that meet two or three hours a day, four days a week — to go through a bill that’s taken a year for 10 people to do. I don’t see how it’s going to happen. We are not going to have time to deal with it.”
And Ayer noted the Senate Finance Committee, which would have to review H.883, already has many bills stacked up on its agenda.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, who serves as the House majority leader, acknowledged the challenge of having to dispense with a complex bill like H.883 during the waning weeks of the session.
“As a broader populace — not just the elected folks — we ought to be willing to have this discussion,” Jewett said.
Jewett was a Ripton school board member when the Addison Central Supervisory Union flirted with school governance consolidation under Act 153. The appetite was not there for consolidation, he noted.
“A board will never vote to do away with itself,” Jewett said.
“I think we ought to ask ourselves questions about whether this kind of consolidation is good for the educational product; what we can deliver to kids; and whether it might provide some efficiencies.”
Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, agreed that H.883 would likely require a “multi-year conversation.” He also warned that Vermonters might have to accept some changes in the decision-making process related to school budgets, as most communities by nature craft spending plans that offer their own children the best education possible. And that often means adding to the bottom line of the budget.
“If we are to bring down the costs, we are going to have to bring some of the decision-making power away from people who are closest to the communities,” Fisher said. “That’s a disturbing statement to make, but it’s true.”
Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, said Vermont should focus on simplifying its education funding laws. He disputed assertions that the state has one of the fairest education funding systems in the country, adding a “few dozen towns” proposed level school budgets this year that nonetheless results in property tax increases for their respective citizens.
“(Act 68) has to be simplified, it has to be more responsive at the local level and it has to be less progressive, I believe,” Van Wyck said.
Other discussion at Monday’s breakfast keyed on the proposed Phase II natural gas pipeline that would extend from Middlebury, through Cornwall and Shoreham, then under Lake Champlain to serve the International Paper Co. in Ticonderoga, N.Y. Pipeline opponents on Monday voiced frustration with an April 9 vote that the Addison County Regional Planning Commission took on whether it believed the project could pass muster with the county’s regional plan. The commission passed the motion, 15-11.
Some pipeline opponents argued the project could not conform to a provision in the plan that speaks against Addison County being used as a pass-through region for major energy projects primarily benefitting other areas. Others noted one of the voting delegates voted “yes” at the April 9 commission meeting in direct conflict with his organization’s stated position of the pipeline project (see related story here).
Cornwall landowner Mary Martin called the process leading up to the regional planning commission vote “sleazy.” She also took issue with ACRPC Executive Director Adam Lougee’s decision to divulge his personal opinion (in favor) about the proposed pipeline.
“I could take it if I had lost fair and square,” said Martin, one of six Cornwall property owners whose land would be affected by the Phase II project.
Orwell resident Norton Latourelle also took issue with the commission’s action’s of April 9.
“I was disturbed by the process, more than by the outcome,” Latourelle said.
“The tainted outcome will have an effect on how the (Vermont) Public Service Board views the pipeline,” he added, suggesting that the commission instead issue a statement that it could not come to a decision.
Middlebury resident Margaret Klohck attended the April 9 meeting and said she, too, was disappointed with the process. She called Lougee’s decision to disclose his opinion (which was requested by a board member) “unprofessional.”
“All he talked about were the economic gains,” she said.
Reached for comment after the breakfast, Lougee said he believed everyone who wanted to participate in the ACRPC discussion was provided with a fair opportunity to do so.
“Within the context of that process, when my commission asked for my opinion, I felt that ACRPC had created a venue where I could speak freely and fairly,” he said. “I had asked ACRPC’s commission members to take a public stand on a very controversial issue.  I believe that I owe them the same courtesy. Moreover, as their staff, I believe my job demands that I provide them with my opinion.
“I don’t believe that it was an easy decision for any of our delegates.”
Ed Payne, one of Bridport’s delegates to the commission, said the body heard a lot of testimony both for and against the project over a long period of time before holding its vote.
“My feeling is, the people were well-represented,” he said.
Some residents on Monday, like Addison’s Jan Louise Ball, called on Addison County residents to rise up in protest.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous that we aren’t laying our bodies down where the pipeline is going to go,” Ball said.
“Why do we let this corporate conglomerate walk all over us?”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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