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Rep. David Sharpe to head education committee

BRISTOL — Addison County will have an important seat at the table when the Vermont Legislature gets to work this month on education finance reform, tabbed by many lawmakers as the top priority for the 2015 session.
Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith has picked Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, to chair the House Education Committee, a panel that will clearly play a big role in devising and advancing any bills aimed at changing the manner in which the state’s public schools are financed.
Smith, during a phone interview on Tuesday, pointed to Sharpe’s professional and civic experience as reasons for his appointment to the Education Committee. Sharpe, 68, retired in 2012 after 21 years of teaching automotive technology at regional technical centers in Essex and Middlebury. Prior to this latest appointment, the six-term incumbent was a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, the panel in charge of the state’s tax laws.
“(Sharpe) has a deep, deep commitment to quality education for kids, which comes out of his experience as a teacher,” Smith said. “He has been deeply involved in (school financing) for the past three or four years and I thought his experience would be really helpful on the committee.”
Sharpe said he had requested the switch in committee assignments, and was pleased House leadership obliged.
“I enjoyed my stint on Ways and Means; I thought the committee worked really well and did some great work,” Sharpe said. “I would have been OK with staying there. But I also felt we needed to do some really good work in terms of property taxes and excellence in education, and connecting the two. We know we have an excellent education system in some regards, but in other regards — children from low-income families and inspiring kids to go on to education beyond high school — we need to do some work.”
And it’s work that Sharpe realizes will have to be done with limited resources. State budget forecasters are projecting a $100 million revenue shortfall for the fiscal year 2016 general fund budget.
 “I believe Vermont can do a better job, and I believe we can do it within the monetary restraints we have now,” Sharpe said. “I was really pleased the speaker placed trust and responsibility in me to try to get this done. I think it’s an extraordinarily difficult task — this year in particular, because of the financials. Citizens don’t have jobs that pay what they ought to be paid, so even though the economy is going well for some people and the stock market is going crazy, people’s paychecks aren’t going crazy, and their kids need to be educated.”
Sharpe believes his experience on Ways and Means will help the Education Committee get a better sense of the financial ramifications of policy decisions that affect schools.
“It’s easy for policy committees to sit around and dream up new, better programs for the state that cost money and then throw it into the lap of the Appropriations Committee that has to sort through it all and decide what’s going to be funded and what’s not going to be funded,” Sharpe said. “It’s even more difficult with the education fund, which is somewhat independent of the state’s appropriations process. I’ve worked in education funding since I first got to the Statehouse … It was my primary responsibility in the Ways and Means Committee.”
MANY INVOLVED
Sharpe realizes that the Education Committee will not be the only cook to stir the school financing pot this session. The Finance, Appropriations, Ways and Means and potentially Human Services committees are all likely to have a hand in any lead bill that materializes. Both Sharpe and Smith believe it will take the entire biennium to draft, discuss and pass an education finance reform bill.
“I also think it has to work across party lines,” Sharpe said.
He does not believe the Legislature will have to start from scratch on a bill. Acts 60 and 68 currently govern how education property taxes are raised, and do so in a manner that complies with the 1996 Brigham v. State decision that concluded Vermont must provide “substantially equal access” to education for all Vermont students, regardless of where they reside.
“I think we have some pieces in place, some really good people that’ll make the effort more doable,” Sharpe said. “I am very hopeful that we can bring some good answers out.”
The Education Committee will undoubtedly hear a lot of proposals, and Sharpe is looking forward to the debate.
“I am pretty open-minded, in terms of what solutions might be forthcoming,” Sharpe said. “I don’t want to prematurely close the door on any proposals.”
But Sharpe stressed he has a few principles that will guide him, and presumably the committee as a whole.
“I think that whatever we do needs to enhance the opportunities for low-income kids and inspire them — and all of our students — to go on to education beyond high schools,” Sharpe said. “That’s a lens through which I will look at all proposals. I will also resist any effort to bifurcate our school system, where those of means have one avenue and those without means have a different avenue.”
The Legislature should not try to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution to school funding, according to Sharpe. Lawmakers should instead focus on a solution that addresses what he believes are some long-overdue structural changes in the public school system, while acknowledging that each district might have its own unique set of challenges.
“I think many people across the state recognize that we need to change some of the structures in education,” Sharpe said. “One of the problems I think with the bill we passed out of the House last year was that it prescribed the same type of consolidation for school districts throughout the state. One of the things I came to realize over the last year was that school districts are really different. Education is really different across the state. To prescribe a single solution out of Montpelier is probably not going to be a particularly good answer, or well-received.
“What we need to do is figure out a way or a path so that school districts move in the direction of what’s best for their communities,” he added. “I don’t think it can remain the same, but I am reluctant to prescribe a particular solution from Montpelier. That’s a difficult conundrum. How do you accomplish that? I haven’t figured that out yet. But I think there is widespread recognition that we need to improve the structure of schools that we haven’t really worked on since the late 1800s.”
Sharpe noted there is a proposal right now to base school financing on Vermonters’ incomes as opposed to mainly their property wealth.
“It’s intriguing, but I think it will be extraordinarily difficult to get there,” Sharpe said.
He noted that the state has, in the past, been able to come up with some additional funds to cushion the transition to a new education financing system. For example, the Legislature added a penny to the state’s sales tax rate in 2003 to lessen the financial impact of converting from Act 60 to Act 68.
“I don’t see us increasing taxes to facilitate any change, so we may find a way to reduce the property taxes by increasing a different tax, although even that seems very problematic,” Sharpe said. “We have a huge task in front of us.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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