Lawmakers mull reductions in special education spending

BRISTOL — Revamping the way Vermont pays for its public schools once again took center stage at Monday’s legislative breakfast at the Bristol American Legion Hall, and local lawmakers are specifically focused this session on reducing special education expenses.
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, chairs the House Education Committee. He alluded to a January 2016 school funding report prepared for the state by Picus Associates that indicated Vermont spends an appropriate amount on K-12 public education. But the report also suggests the state spends $30 million more than it should on school administration and a whopping $140 million too much on special education, according to Sharpe.
The Legislature recently asked the University of Vermont to look at how the state funds special education and recommend ways to lessen that expenditure while still providing the necessary services to those who qualify. The state currently uses a “reimbursement model” for defraying districts’ special education expenses, Sharpe said. This model does not encourage districts to seek out the most cost-effective services, he believes.
UVM officials found the state could save around $80 million in special education costs if it switched to a different funding model, Sharpe said. So the Legislature commissioned a Harvard University team to work with 10 Vermont supervisory unions on a “best practices” strategy for special education programming.
Based on the findings of that Harvard study, the House Education Committee is considering a bill this session that would see Vermont adopt a block grant system through which to provide special education resources to school districts.
“Schools would get a certain amount of dollars for every student in their school building, and they would deliver services as they felt were most appropriate for those students” in consultation with state education officials, Sharpe said.
Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol, acknowledged Vermont taxpayers’ ongoing calls for the state’s help in reducing the costs of public education. But he noted the state’s reluctance to dictate school budgeting, in deference to Vermonters’ Town Meeting Day responsibilities.
“The state figures out how we raise the $1.6 billion that goes to pay for educating our kids, yet a fundamental principle in Vermont is local control,” said Baser, a member of the House Ways & Means Committee. “In terms of who decides how much we spend for our schools, that’s determined by us, when we vote.”
He described what is now, in essence, a metaphorical tug of war on school funding.
“In general, we are loathe to say to (school districts), ‘You will only spend so much per pupil,’ because it takes away local control,” Baser said. “This conundrum, of the state determining funding and our school districts determining how much they’re going to spend, is likely to continue and will make for a large struggle in terms of controlling those costs — unless, perhaps, the state steps up and takes actions that I’m sure will be very controversial to people in local communities.”
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, said he believes all 180 of the state’s lawmakers “feel a genuine sense of always wanting to spend taxpayer dollars well. We are always looking to see if we can do the same programs better and maybe save money along the way.”
He added he and other lawmakers often hear from people asking about the state’s current ratio of approximately four students per school employee.
Bray noted a current effort in the Senate to distinguish financially between school employees connected to the learning mission, and those providing ancillary human services — such as mental health counseling — upon which many students and their families have come to rely.
“It turns out that schools are a great venue for delivering many services; that’s where this very rural population comes together on a regular basis,” Bray said.
Also at the breakfast, lawmakers discussed a House Ways & Means Committee effort to establish an income tax as the primary way Vermonters pay for their public schools. The new education income tax would supplant the property tax as the main way Vermonters pay for their public schools, according to Baser.
Other discussion at Monday’s legislative breakfast focused on:
•  Health care reform. Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, is chairwoman of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, a major incubation center for all things health reform. She confirmed that there are bills calling for Vermont to offer universal access to primary care; for the state to become an importer/wholesaler of 15-20 brand-name drugs purchased at lower cost through Canada; and for the state to get permission to reuse leftover, in-date drugs that would otherwise be discarded by nursing homes and other health care facilities.
“It’s not a money-maker, but it does help people without a lot of money to buy their drugs,” Ayer said.
•  Legislation aimed at promoting use of electric vehicles.
•  Largely unregulated coyote hunting in Vermont (see story on Page 1A).
•  A new law that has made it legal for Vermont adults to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and to grow up to two pot plants on their property. Lawmakers were asked if the new law might retroactively expunge Vermonters’ prior marijuana-related citations/criminal records. Local legislators promised to get an answer to that question.
•  Potential adjustments to the state’s bottle bill. The bottle bill — established in 1973 as a way of reducing roadside litter — guarantees a 5-cent deposit paid for returnable soft drink, liquor, beer and wine bottles. But declining profitability for redemption center operators, and a desire by some to see the bill extended to other containers, has raised concern among some citizens and vendors that the law could either be expanded or pared back based on market forces.
“You still have to make it profitable for these people to handle the bottles,” Baser said. “It’s costing them money.”
Lawmakers said they didn’t believe the bottle bill would be changed this year.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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