Education plan faces hurdles in state Senate

SHOREHAM — The Education finance reform bill approved by the Vermont House last Thursday would accomplish three things, according to Rep. David Sharpe: set a statewide education property tax rate, cap school spending for three years and create larger school districts.
The Bristol Democrat, who chairs the House Education Committee, described the bill at a Legislative Breakfast in Shoreham on Monday, where local lawmakers also shared details of what has already been a busy April in the Statehouse.
Bill H.361, as described by Sharpe on Monday, would:
First, fix the statewide rate for education property taxes at $1 per $100 in property value for homesteads (a home on two acres) or at 2 percent of income for families who pay a smaller tax bill based on their income. The education property tax for non-residential properties would be based on a ratio of those two figures.
This change, Sharpe told a crowd at Monday’s legislative breakfast at the Shoreham Congregational Church, is an effort to make school taxes more understandable and user-friendly.
“The December letter from the tax commissioner will have one number, and that number will be how much (the education property tax rate) raises per pupil,” Sharpe said.
Consequently, school boards and citizens will know the financial implications of spending beyond the base statewide rate, Sharpe noted.
“It doesn’t necessarily change decisions that people are going to make, but it should be clearer and a lot more transparent,” Sharpe said.
The second major change reflected in the H.361 calls for a three-year cap on school spending as a bridge to the anticipated savings that Vermonters are expected to see through the third major provision of the bill — the creation of integrated pre-K-to-grade-12 school districts of at least 1,100 students. The expanded school districts, called “integrated education systems,” will consolidate budgeting for all member schools, promote the sharing of teachers and other resources; and free up local school boards to focus on education policy, according to Sharpe.
The cap is designed to keep annual school spending at or below the inflation rate, which Sharpe said was around 2.95 percent this past year.
He acknowledged H.361 might result in closure of some of the state’s smaller schools, due to the loss of additional students heading to other, larger districts.
H.361 is projected to save $12 million to $32 million in administrative expenses, and save an additional $25 million to $50 million through shared resources among schools, according to Sharpe.
On Tuesday, the Vermont Senate took up H.361 and sent it to the Senate Rules Committee.
Also at Monday’s Legislative Breakfast, discussion centered on health care reform, a carbon tax and solar arrays.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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