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Legislative Review: Lawmakers struggle to fund education

Our Vermont Constitution requires the state to provide education for all our youth. For many years, the state has designated towns to carry out this requirement of the constitution. In the end it is the responsibility of all of us to educate all our youth.
The Legislature is in the midst of figuring out how to carry out this constitutional responsibility within the ability of Vermont taxpayers to pay for it. Furthermore, the Vermont Constitution requires that this education will be equitably available to all Vermont students. That part of the Constitutional requirement was upheld in a Supreme Court decision in 1997 and has been a difficult challenge for Vermonters ever since.
In order to meet that challenge the state adopted the municipal tax procedures for raising revenues for schools and married it to the municipal property tax. School budgets continued to be voted in each town and it required the Legislature to set rates sufficient to meet the statewide budget the same way that town selectboards are required to set tax rates sufficient to fund the other budgets voted at town meeting.
The state, thus far, has divided up the responsibility on a per-pupil basis much like a dinner group might divide up the dinner bill at the restaurant. If all go to dinner the next week and one is missing yet the dinner bill is the same the amount each person must pay will, of course, be higher (same bill divided by fewer people). We have the same dynamic in school taxes. When the budgets are voted and the total is higher this year than last and we divide by fewer students we come up with a bigger bill for each student. And higher taxes for all residents.
It is likely that in order to begin to work to keep costs down even while having fewer students we will need to create larger school districts that will have the ability to create educational efficiencies allowing for equitable opportunities for Vermont students, maintain or even improve educational outcomes for our students and relieve some of the pressure on property taxes.
Would you, if you were designing an educational system for 90,000 Vermont students today, create 305 school districts with over 1,400 school board members or might you choose a different structure?
Rep. Sharpe is chair of the House Education Committee.

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