Legislative Review: Education landscape changing fast

We are living through a transformational moment in public preK-12 education. This is true at county, state and national levels. Recently in Addison County, each of our three unified school districts has considered the closure of elementary, middle and high schools due to financial pressures. Those pressures were exacerbated in 2020 as wild swings in state education fund projections resulted in dire warnings for fiscal year 2022 (FY22) budget development. Early in 2021 these warnings instilled a new urgency in conversations about school closures. But even as those conversations heated up in February, state revenue projections rebounded dramatically. This was fueled by an unprecedented rush of federal relief. Over just a few months, we went from facing down budget austerity to now having a little breathing room as well as some new resources. So, while major changes are still on the way for our local schools, we might now have more time to innovate and more reason to hope.

When thinking about public education broadly, it is daunting to understand the intent and function of the myriad state and federal policies. For many of us, the programming and student experience at our local schools is the most straightforward point for engagement. This was certainly true for me in my seven years as a school board member. Opportunities to incorporate new federal or state dynamics into local planning decisions are few, since many of the governing policies and programs have existed stably for decades. However, I think the current moment might present such an opportunity. The past 14 months of the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in upheaval and renewal at all levels of government, and these shifts can in turn change the outlook for our local schools.

By way of example: the Mount Abraham Unified School District board is considering a proposal first recommended by its superintendent on Dec. 7, 2020. At that time the “Dec. 1 Letter” had just been sent out by the Vermont Tax Commissioner. This annual letter serves as an important signal to the education field, projecting tax rates for the coming fiscal year. Eight months into the pandemic, December’s letter warned that average residential property tax rates would increase statewide from $1.54 in FY21 to $1.63 in FY22. Ominously, those numbers did not include the nearly $60 million education fund deficit projected at that time.

For the MAUSD board this news provided major pressure, not only for FY22 budget development but also in the context of the superintendent’s proposal. An additional pressure for school boards at that time was the miniscule 0.18% increase in the excess spending threshold for FY22. Normally this measure would have increased annually by at least 2% so the budget impact was fairly catastrophic, especially when extrapolated out two or three years. The proposed solution from the MAUSD superintendent was to dramatically reduce staffing levels by FY23 through elementary school closures and then to send Mount Abraham high school students to Vergennes high school in FY24.

Usually when you receive a short-term tax or budget projection, as a school board member or a school administrator, you can expect a degree of stability in those numbers over time. However, since Dec. 1, 2020, financial projections have reversed course dramatically and quite unexpectedly. One data point: That statewide residential property tax rate, projected to increase by 9 cents in December, is now set to decrease 1.5 cents instead. Another: The education fund, previously facing a large FY22 deficit, now has a surplus. This turnaround even allowed for increased investment in our teacher retirement and healthcare obligations. And finally: the excess spending threshold has been eliminated for FY22 and FY23. This means that the 0.18% increase for FY22 no longer applies. A legislative task force convening this summer will decide whether to recommend reinstating this threshold or suspending it indefinitely. These are simply enormous reversals to have occurred in a span of less than six months.

Clearly these reversals were bolstered in large part by a historic influx of federal aid. State economists measured, in aggregate, about $3.5 billion flowing to Vermont via the first two COVID stimulus bills. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), passed in early 2021, will add to those figures overall and will send new aid directly to school districts. Additionally, there is a proposed infrastructure bill in Congress that could provide new financial sources of school construction aid. In the recently adjourned session, the Vermont legislature took our cues from the federal priorities outlined in ARPA and passed legislation investing in broadband, childcare and workforce development. And in relation to Vermont education policy, there are three bills in particular that I’d like to highlight:

•  S.13, “Equalized Pupil Weights” bill. This legislation convenes a task force to recommend the implementation of new equalized pupil weights as recommended by a 2019 study. Importantly, this bill clarifies that new pupil weights will not take effect before FY24, which should help our school boards to plan for any change. This legislation also eliminates the excess spending threshold for FY 22 and FY 23.

•  H.426, “School Construction” bill. For the first time since 2007, this bill brings back the necessary capability at the Agency of Education to advise districts around school construction. The amount of overdue construction across the state, particularly in our high schools, is staggering. This legislation revives statewide capacity to help with construction planning, while also mandating radon testing. As illustrated by the recent Burlington High School closure, we need to understand the environmental liabilities of our public school buildings before designing our future campuses.

•  H.106, “Community Schools” bill. In Vermont, a growing number of schools are implementing or exploring this federally designated model. Examples are Molly Stark Elementary in Bennington, which offers in-school health services, extended hours and summer classes, and Winooski, where they have implemented a school-based health center. H.106 would provide funding for the implementation of such community programs in a group of pilot schools. I see this initiative as a perfect way to get “proof of concept” for co-locating human services under the same roofs as educational programming.

By FY25, I believe we can answer some critical questions:

•  How many 21st-century high schools can Vermont support? How many high schools can Addison County support?

•  What federal help is coming for school construction? What will new state planning assistance look like?

•  How can human services budgets and public education budgets pull together in new ways? Can childcare and early education be truly integrated with preK-12?

•  What structural changes will the S.13 task force recommend to the state education funding formula in December?

•  Will there be significant changes in Vermont’s population post-pandemic? Property transfers show a huge trend in sales, but will this result in new permanent residents?

The answers to these questions could fundamentally affect the long-term strategy for public schools in Addison County. Based on the numbers we were facing in late 2020, we might have said there was no time to wait or to innovate. But now I believe it’s worth waiting a little longer in order to let emerging opportunities arrive.

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