3.5.2021 – Town Meeting Week, Education Thoughts, and H.143
It has been a great pleasure to be home this Town Meeting week without the usual six- to eight-hour Zoom workdays. Signs of spring are becoming evident despite the cold temperatures. The sun is setting slightly north each day over Turkey Mountain and the days are growing longer by several minutes. On a car ride last weekend, I noticed little color changes in the trees and bushes, and it might be time to start some seeds for the garden.
I did miss my usual Town Meeting routine, visiting all the Town Meetings in the Windham-3 district, and hope that by next year we will be back on track with in-person gatherings.
I will be getting my COVID-19 vaccine this coming week and encourage everyone to get it when they become eligible. I will continue to wear a mask because, while I will have an immunity to the virus, I could be infected and spread it to others.
This past week also gave me a chance to reflect on the education system and the fact that several schools in my district and others have voted to leave their Act 46 forced, merged districts. We have watched as many of the predictions of lower costs and more student opportunity have not come to pass. In fact, higher tax rates have been the result in some towns that voted to merge because of the threat that the state would do it to them if they did not merge voluntarily.
On Tuesday, I was re-elected to the Windham Elementary School Board, which is a great honor for me. I have served in the neighborhood of twenty-five years and have watched the number of students dwindle so that now we are a very small school. When my children attended, we had thirty to thirty-seven students and now we have low double digits, though some are being home-schooled due to the pandemic. The encouraging news is that we anticipate seeing an influx of new children next year providing that all goes well regarding the pandemic.
We may have a very small school, but what has that smallness allowed us to do during this time of COVID-19? We are the only school in the supervisory union that has had full-time (four days a week) in-person education for all our students since the beginning of school on September 8th. Almost on a daily basis, we hear about concerns that children who have been attending school remotely are suffering from the effects of isolation and are sliding in terms of academics.
I visited the school (fully masked) to post the warning for our reorganization meeting and found the students out during recess enjoying the mounds of snow that are piled up around the driveway. As I talked with the principal, the children were engaged in positive conversation, taking off their snowsuits, and getting ready to go back to class. Our principal, Mickey Parker-Jennings, told me how happy and excited the children are to be in school. Their eagerness to learn was completely evident.
In recent years, there have been concerns about our tax rates. Several years ago, we experienced an increase because of special education costs, in particular, Pre-K special education costs that are not reimbursed at the same level K-12th grade (or 22 years old) are. When I became aware of this, I was astonished. Typically, K-12 special ed is reimbursed at 56%. This is not the case with Pre-K special ed, which is supported at a much lower level, and which makes no sense to me.
The numbers I quote here are slightly old but are indicative of what I think is unconscionable. The Windham Central Supervisory Union had Pre-K special ed costs of $400,000 but were reimbursed approximately $50,000-$55,000. Had this been K-12, the reimbursement would have been $224,000.
Shortchanging early special education makes no sense. Isn’t it true that dramatic development in children occurs in the first several years of life? If we can address a child’s needs early, we can be much more effective for the sake of the child, as well as cost-wise, and give them a better opportunity for success? As a result, I sponsored legislation last biennium that would correct that error and fund Pre-K special ed at the same level as K-12. I have reintroduced the bill, H.143, this year, with several sponsors including Windham County legislators Reps. Laura Sibilia and Sara Coffey.
It should be noted that the current policy makes life for our smallest schools very difficult. One or two Pre-K students with special needs can increase a budget dramatically with little hope for reasonable reimbursement. Just bringing reimbursement levels up to the K-12 level would be a huge help and a good start.
As a follow-up to last week’s article regarding my constituent, Diana Lawrence’s, “Teach for Vermont” idea, I’ve had conversations with educators who think it would be a big help as we get children back up to speed after the pandemic subsides and we are all vaccinated. Windham’s principal felt that even though Windham has been meeting full-time, volunteers who would like to work with the kids would be welcome. This, of course, would require going through a screening process but would also be a wonderful way of familiarizing community members with the workings of the school and what it has to offer.
This coming week, we will be getting back to our legislative work with our eyes on Friday, which is crossover. We have a couple of bills that we are taking testimony on including H.218, which would expand the sales of raw milk to farm stands and CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture). There are some outstanding questions we need to address regarding food safety, chain of custody, and liability for farmers and farm stand owners.
We will see increasing numbers of bills on the Floor for consideration this week so committee time will be shortened somewhat but we will do our best to get our work done in a timely manner.