Lawmakers to revisit Act 46 per-pupil spending limits

MONTPELIER — Area school districts struggling to draft budgets that comply with the new per-pupil spending guidelines prescribed by Act 46 might get an 11th-hour reprieve. The Legislature next month will consider amendments to Act 46 that might relax — or postpone — the spending restrictions that are part of the new school governance consolidation law.
Act 46, passed during the 2015 legislative session, offers financial incentives to supervisory unions that agree to establish a single consolidated K-12 school district that would be governed by a single board. But the law also calls for per-pupil spending caps during a two-year transition toward full implementation of Act 46.
Allowable per-pupil spending increases for schools during the 2016-2017 academic year currently range from zero for Weybridge Elementary — which at $20,200 spends the most in the state per student — to 7.21 percent in Greensboro, which spends the lowest amount of money per student.
Some school officials have been urging the Legislature to ease up on the per-pupil spending caps, which they argue do not allow their districts to cover contracted salary and benefits increases.
“For Robinson Elementary School we are looking at a spending cap of 1.56 percent,” Starksboro School board Chairman Louis duPont wrote in a Nov. 18 letter to Vermont House and Senate leaders urging repeal of the Act 46 spending thresholds.
“Preliminary estimates from our business office have given our board a maximum increase of $6,785 for next year’s budget,” the letter continues. “The predicted VEHI health insurance increase will cost our district around $12,000. To stay below the threshold the Legislature has mandated, we will need to reduce educational opportunities and postpone needed repairs to the building that has been entrusted to us.”
The House Education Committee met last month to consider legislation that might respond to school boards’ concerns about the per-pupil spending limits imposed by Act 46. Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, chairs that committee. He said the panel emerged from its November meeting with four potential recommendations:
•  Do nothing and leave the law the way it is.
•  Repeal the per-pupil spending limits that higher spending district are having difficulty achieving. The state Senate has already gone on record as opposing those limits, Sharpe noted.
Under this option, the Act 46 limits would be replaced by a limit “based on the average spending per pupil in the state in 2014, inflated by the state and local government inflation rate which has been around 2.5 percent to 2.6 percent over the past couple of years,” Sharpe said. If it were in place next year, this threshold would affect 28 of the state’s 277 school districts, according to Sharpe.
•  Allow a one-year delay in implementation of the Act 46 per-pupil spending limits. Gov. Peter Shumlin is on record as supporting this option.
•  Allow a 0.9-percent increase, across the board, in the per-pupil spending threshold prescribed by Act 46, mostly to accommodate the significant increase in health care premiums that schools are facing.
For example, UD-3, which includes Middlebury Union Middle and High schools — has been granted a 0.71-percent increase in per-pupil spending under Act 46. A bump of 0.9 percent would boost UD-3’s allowable spending increase to 1.61 percent, according to Sharpe.
This fourth option seemed to have the most support among House Education Committee members at their November meeting, according to Sharpe.
Lawmakers are sensitive to the fact that school districts are under a tight deadline to finalize their respective spending plans for Town Meeting Day votes, Shaw noted.
“I am working very hard to get something out of the House by the middle of January,” he said. “The timing is tough.”
Complaints about spending limits aside, Sharpe said he and his colleagues have been pleased to hear a lot of support for Act 46. House Education Committee members had been told to expect a handful of supervisory unions to proceed with accelerated governance mergers during the first year of the new law. There are actually around a dozen supervisory unions that will be fielding governance consolidation questions before next July 1. Among them are the Addison Central, Addison Northwest and Rutland Northeast supervisory unions.
“Many more school districts are engaged in these discussions than we expected in the first year,” Sharpe said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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