I want to take a moment and thank all of you for your kind words and well-wishes after my announcement that I would not be running again. It was touching and I greatly appreciate it. My term doesn’t end until next January and I want you to know that I will be “on duty” until then.
One of the things that I really wanted to accomplish before the end of my tenure in the Legislature was to fix the education funding system, in particular, the weights given to each student in terms of how they are funded. This week, we passed S.287, which, we believe, will do just that.
To give a little background information, Act 60 was passed in 1997 to assure that every Vermont child, regardless off where they lived, would have an equal opportunity for education. What was the problem? For instance, a town like Windham has a large tax base compared to the number of students we have to educate, while a town like Rockingham has a relatively small tax base compared to the number of students it has to educate. As a result, the education tax in Windham was very low compared to Rockingham. A Vermont Supreme Court ruling, known as Brigham, decided that this was unfair, every Vermont child deserves an equal opportunity for education, and that steps needed to be taken to correct it.
Act 60, which was passed before I was elected, was meant to equalize that disparity. I remember the education tax in Windham going up significantly the first two years of Act 60. Other towns like Stratton, Winhall, and Manchester, which had strong commercial and second home bases started foundations to circumvent Act 60 and the increased taxes. We later passed Act 68 that disincentivized that effort.
At the time, the weight, or value, placed on a student was made up, pulled out of the air, without the necessary research to determine what was really needed to educate students. The first weights that would determine what a town got to educate their kids were 1.0 for elementary school students and 1.25 for high school students (for example, if an elementary student got $10,000, a high school student got $12,500). This recognized that it was more expensive to provide a good education for high school students than for elementary school students. It was really a “guesstimate”, and the high school value was later changed to 1.13. Later still, we added a value for Pre-Kindergarten students at .46.
What was supposed to happen, though was sort of forgotten, was a real evaluation of what the costs were to educate our students. Those of us who were serving on the school boards of small, rural schools knew that something was out of kilter because when you base your formula on per pupil spending, the lack of economy of scale for small schools becomes immediately apparent. What was also frustrating was the fact that Windham was, and still is, sending $2-$3 to the Education Fund for every $1 that we spent on our students, while only getting back the value of 1.0 for them. The Small Schools Grant was enacted shortly after Act 60 passed because the lack of economy of scale was recognized, but over the years, there have been attempts to take that away from small schools as well.
We were not alone. Many other sparsely populated, rural towns felt the same pinch, and the pressure to consolidate with other schools became more prevalent despite geographic isolation and the distance/road conditions to those other schools. To add to the difficulty, an attempt to control spending, the Spending Threshold Penalty, penalized schools that went above a certain level of spending. This happened without any kind of in-depth study as to why spending was increasing. In some cases, it was because of increased spending on special education, the need to do building repairs, buy a new school bus, or other education requirements. It didn’t matter, if your spending rose above the Penalty Threshold, you were on the hook for higher education taxes.
While I support the basic principle that all children deserve an equal opportunity for education, there have been some, perhaps, unintended consequences that have played out in almost all Vermont schools. One is deferred maintenance, and we are now seeing a majority of schools all over the state with substantial needs for infrastructure updates.
In 2019, a study was done by Rutgers University and UVM that determined that the current weights do not accurately reflect the actual costs for educating students who are living in poverty, in sparsely populated communities, or are English language learners. A subsequent legislative task force recommended that weights be updated as indicated in S.287. As a recognition that the weights have not reflected true costs, the Spending Threshold Penalty will be suspended. The new weights will not be implemented until 2025 to give the towns that will be losing taxing capacity a chance to adjust.
One of the arguments that was made against changing the weights was that this would just allow previously underweighted school districts to lower their taxes rather than spend more money on their students. This argument, I must say, was infuriating and insulting!! What have the towns that have been overweighted for the last twenty-five years been doing?
I am thankful that I was in the Legislature long enough to vote to correct this injustice and was happy when the bill passed on a strong 132-11 vote. Thanks need to go to all of the folks who have worked so hard to represent the towns that have struggled with the unfair weighting system for all these years.
Now, if we could just do something about the plummeting Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) in towns where the real estate market has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be greatly helpful. I think we are all aware of the folks who have come from elsewhere and paid double, or more, what a house was valued at on the Grand List. The steep decrease in the CLA in one year has raised education taxes in Windham by thirty cents per hundred. Because the CLA dipped below 85%, we are now required to do a reappraisal, which may take several years to accomplish. Why? Because many other towns are in the same boat and there are limited companies doing reappraisals. We’ve made other adjustments due to the pandemic in the recent past, such as maintaining the number of equalized pupils at pre-pandemic levels. Perhaps we could do something about the CLA.