3.6.2020 – Town Meeting and Education Funding

It has been a momentous Town Meeting Week. Because the Windham School budget was facing a large increase with a corresponding property tax increase, I stayed in Windham to help my fellow School Board members present the budget. As a result, I wasn’t able to visit in Athens and Grafton and I’ll try my best to make it up to them. My former district-mate, Matt Trieber, came to my aid, however, did visit in my stead, and I owe him a debt of gratitude. Brookline met on Monday night and I was able to get to their meeting after a long School Board meeting. It was really good to see everyone, and I hope their goal of changing the meeting date and time resulted in greater attendance.

One of the reasons that our Monday School Board went so late was that we have been working with a group of concerned citizens on the increased education costs. The Ad Hoc committee has been doing research and thoughtful work to see where we might see some savings, thereby lowering our property tax rate.

Historically, Windham’s spending has been below the spending penalty threshold. However, in 2019 after approving our budget, we became aware of Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) expenses that we were responsible for. These expenses, amounting to more than 10% of our budget, were excessive and caused us to consider our options. It was suggested that we defer part of the cost to the following year because it was unclear that we would be responsible for those costs that next year, but indeed we were. This, added to a significant increase in health care costs, has caused our budget to balloon, our per pupil spending to go way above the spending penalty threshold, and our tax rates to skyrocket.

The work of the Ad Hoc committee has been greatly appreciated. Community involvement in our budget construction process is something we have encouraged for years. However, in the past we have held Budget Information Meetings and two to three people would show up. We were glad when people got involved to look at it with a new set of eyes.

As a legislator, the issues around ECSE expenses were new to me. Working with Superintendent Bill Anton, I learned that the Windham Central Supervisory Union has approximately $400,000 in ECSE costs but gets only $62,000 in support to cover them. The balance is covered by local communities. This made no sense to me given that Kindergarten – 12th grade (or 22 years old) is supported at 56%. Extraordinary costs (over $60,000 per student) are covered at 90%. In a day and age when we recognize the value of early intervention, this is absurd.

An additional alarming discovery that I made was that the ECSE money is awarded on a census block grant basis. If I understand it correctly, the support is based on the number of 1-3 graders, not of the needs of a particular student. This, too, makes no sense. In the next year or so, the reimbursement for K-12 will be based on a census block grant and I fear what that means for the WCSU and sparsely populated, local towns that will have to pick up additional costs.

As a result, I sponsored H.661, which requires that ECSE be supported at the same level as K-12. This would require increased funding, but my understanding is that there is additional money in the Education Fund that could be applied to this important effort, or it could be used to buy down the property tax rate by a couple of cents. My vote would be to apply it to increased ECSE support and what I see as a huge inequity that is killing, in particular, small schools.

I have written previous pieces about the Weighting Study and the fact that it is clear that small schools, in sparsely populated towns with high rates of poverty have been shortchanged by the current education funding formula. It is my hope that we will move forward as quickly as possible to institute the corrected weights and rectify the current system that has constitutional issues.

There are those who have said that Windham should have merged but if you look at the costs for our would-be merger partners, you’ll see that they are way above the spending penalty threshold as well, and that the incentives that some of them received for merging have been nullified. When I testified on H.661in the House Education Committee, the General Counsel for the Agency of Education, Emily Simmons, said that merger would not have helped us with the ECSE cost situation. The fact that we are geographically isolated also contributes to our need to remain an operating school.

When we wrapped up our long School Board meeting on Monday, I thought we had gotten to a good place of agreement and understanding with Ad Hoc committee members. It was suggested that we “push the pause button” on approving the budget at Town Meeting so that we could continue to work on it. While the School Board was in general agreement, we felt that since it was warned, we needed to move forward, present it, and vote knowing that it might well be defeated. When I asked if we could count on the group to stand with us and support us with the process, I thought we had general agreement.

The next day, the budget was defeated and so was I after 20+ years of service to the Windham School Board. I choose to believe that it was nothing personal, it would have been any one of us up for re-election that day and that it was a case of shooting the messenger. The truth is, I will continue to stay involved and attend meetings of both the Ad Hoc committee and the Windham School Board. Why? Because I believe that education is the most important investment we make in the future of our children, our communities, our state, and the world.

Article 68 in the Vermont Constitution states, “a competent number of schools ought to be maintained in each town unless the general assembly permits other provisions for the convenient instruction of youth.” While I would agree that consolidation of schools might make sense in some areas, it is not the case in others where it is not convenient, safe, or healthy to be transporting young children great distances over difficult terrain. The current funding structure is crushing small schools, including those that are geographically necessary and should be changed.