Area lawmakers pan Scott’s education funding plan

BRIDPORT — Local legislators on Monday criticized Gov. Phil Scott’s proposal that school districts budget the same amount of spending for fiscal year 2018 as they are for this year, saying such a move would unfairly restrict local budget planners and could run counter to a 20-year-old Vermont Supreme Court ruling on education funding.
Scott, during his budget address last month, unveiled a multi-year education funding proposal that calls for level funding school budgets next year that he said would save around $30 million. His spending plan also adds $9.6 million for early education, and an additional $4 million for the state colleges.
The governor’s school budgeting proposal was the most hotly debated topic at Monday’s opening legislative breakfast at the Bridport Grange Hall, which drew around 40 citizens and four lawmakers. Fortunately, two of the four participating legislators were Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, and Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven. Sharpe chairs the House Education Committee, while Bray is a member the Senate Education Committee.
Sharpe expressed concern about provisions of Scott’s proposal that he said could run counter to Acts 60 and 68, which currently govern how education property taxes are raised. Those laws were drafted to comply with the Supreme Court’s Brigham v. State decision of 1996 that concluded Vermont must provide “substantially equal access” to education for all Vermont students, regardless of where they reside.
Sharpe argued Scott’s plan “allows for communities to raise money on their own grand lists. So it is actually a return to the tax system before the Brigham decision.”
Specifically, Scott’s plan allows school districts to increase their spending proposals by up to 5 percent using taxing capacity through their respective grand lists, according to Sharpe.
“It does violate Brigham,” Sharpe said. “What it says is that after 2018 — which has this 5-percent cushion the districts are allowed to spend — in 2019, that cushion goes away and you’re back to 2017 spending. I didn’t see any language that allowed communities to raise additional money on their own grand lists, but I suspect that as inflationary pressures apply, there will be the need to raise additional money, and presumably (communities) would do it on their own grand lists. We do not have a House bill. The only bill we have is to move the date (of budget votes) out to May, and we defeated that.”
Sharpe called Scott’s education funding plan “really unfortunate” and “unworkable.”
Still, Sharpe applauded Scott’s call to increase spending on early child care services and higher education.
“Our state colleges are in dire financial straits,” Sharpe said. “If we don’t do something, we could lose Lyndon State and Johnson State colleges. That would be tragic. They are economic chargers for the northern tier of our state.”
The Legislature should find other means by which to fund Scott’s early child care and higher education initiatives, according to Sharpe — and it won’t be easy.
“I am going to work very hard to find the $4.5 million (the colleges) need to stay alive on the northern tier,” Sharpe said. “But money is extremely tight this year and we’re going to probably end up passing a bill that has some taxes and fees in it, and the governor so far has promised to veto that. I don’t know if we can find a compromise somewhere down the road, but it looks right now like a very difficult session.”
Bray said he is concerned the governor’s proposal comes at a time when most school districts have already done their budget planning for fiscal year 2018.
“The governor’s proposal arrives in the middle of a great number of (Act 46 school governance) consolidation votes, and many districts have made hard choices,” Bray said. “Most of the budgets we’re hearing about are smaller budgets than prior years’ budgets, and many towns have already worked hard at trimming expenses.”
He issued a reminder that school finance decisions are still largely made at the local level.
“A sobering reminder is that it always starts with a local vote on a local school budget,” he said. “What we do in Montpelier is receive all the budgets from all over the state and figure out a way to raise the money to fund them. The driver of the underlying costs that we face as a system is always a local vote. I just want to remind people that that’s where it all starts. It’s human nature to say, ‘Montpelier is doing this,’ but Montpelier really responds to local votes statewide.”
Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol, is a member of the House Ways & Means Committee, which plays a key role in the state’s tax policies.
Baser acknowledged Scott’s effort to reduce the property tax burden on Vermonters, a recurring theme that lawmakers heard on the campaign trail last fall.
“People are hurting,” Baser said.
Still, he said the governor’s call for a spending freeze for K-12 education is “probably not practical in the total scheme of things; (speaking) as a former school board member, knowing what we all go through. But I think the positive thing that has come out of this is it has energized folks in the Legislature to take up the subject.”
Baser noted school budgets have increased dramatically during the past 20 years since the Brigham decision, while student enrollment has been decreasing at the same time.
“Somehow, some way, we need to come up with some ideas in order to slow that dynamic down,” Baser said.
The answer lies in making more school-related cuts, according to some citizens at Monday’s breakfast.
Bridport resident Ed Payne said schools should get rid of their “dead wood,” a term he used to describe a top-heavy education administration that he believes has become superfluous in an era of declining enrollment. Payne specifically criticized his own local elementary school, which he said has “an $80,000 principal for 80 kids.”
Payne also contended Vermont’s Act 46 — designed to consolidate school governance for greater efficiencies — “didn’t save a damn dime.”
Sharpe said he believes Act 46 will ultimately save school administration costs through increased sharing of personnel within unified districts. He cited Essex as an example of a consolidated district that will save around $1 million in superintendent-related expenses.
Addison resident Paul Boivin argued a big part of the state’s education funding problem is due to a lack of jobs to keep young residents from fleeing to other states following graduation. With these graduates leaving, there are fewer young families to fill the schools with students, he noted. This has left some schools with classes of 10 or fewer students for each teacher, he said.
“We are way too heavy on management,” Boivin said.
Lawmakers said the school funding conundrum will receive a lot of attention during the coming months.
 “Clearly, we have more work to do,” Bray said.
The next legislative breakfast, sponsored by Bridport Grange No. 303 and the Addison County Farm Bureau, will be held at the Middlebury American Legion Hall on Boardman Street on Monday, Feb. 13, beginning at 7 a.m.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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