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Legislative Report 4/10/2014 - Education Governance Changes Proposed

When it comes to discussions about Vermont’s education system, the biggest focus has been the effect on property taxes.  How to finance education has been a primary concern these past weeks and the legislature took steps to reduce the increase in the statewide property tax that was projected back in March.  The other big issue is the way the education system is designed, referred to as governance in legislative parlance, and how governance affects performance and costs.  House bill H.883 has been reported out of the Education Committee to deal with this aspect, and it has become just as controversial as the financing issue.

What’s the problem?
The present system of organizing school districts was designed back in 1892.  Vermont has 282 school districts, 80 supervisory unions, and 1500 school board members for about 80,000 students.  There is one school board member for every 53 students.  Because of increasing costs, we have the highest per-pupil spending in the country.  We have the lowest teacher to student ratio, yet our student achievement, as good as it is in comparison with the rest of the country, has not increased at the same rate as our spending.  Furthermore, the governance structure is not conducive to stable educational leadership, resulting in a 30% turnover rate of principals and superintendents.

What is being proposed?
H.883 is a school district consolidation bill.  It proposes to eliminate supervisory unions by the year 2020.  Existing school districts would be realigned into expanded districts responsible for the education of pre-Kindergarten to grade 12 students.   Each expanded district would serve a minimum of 1250 students or four pre-existing districts, although waivers could be requested under certain circumstances.  PreK-12 districts would be formed recognizing historic relationships between communities, existing school districts and potential geographic obstacles.  Existing school districts would have until 2017 to self-determine their alignment in a new or currently existing preK-12 district.

What does it hope to accomplish?
The goals of this legislation include (1) creating more cohesion in curriculum, professional development and accountability, (2) the ability to share resources and create more options for students, (3) opportunities for all students to prepare for the 21st century marketplace, (4) leadership stability throughout the system, and (5) potential savings in education delivery.

What effect will it have on CSSU?
CSSU has already consolidated many functions at the supervisory union level.  This has allowed sharing of resources across the five PreK-8 schools it serves.  It currently operates with 5 PreK-8 school boards, a CVU school board and a supervisory union school board.  Under H.883, all of these boards would be reorganized into a single board with representation from each community unless one or more member districts chose to realign with other districts.  Since some schools have an increasing student enrollment and others a decreasing enrollment, possibilities would exist to share classroom and staff resources as well. 

Some are critical of this plan because they perceive a potential loss of local control over curriculum and budget.  Others doubt that the plan would actually achieve savings.  Everyone, however, seems to agree that the current system is unsustainable.  While some supervisory unions already operate fairly efficiently, there are other parts of the state that are constrained by size, geography, and lack of resources.  There will continue to be debate over this bill in the House during the coming weeks.  Whether it gets to the full House for a vote remains to be seen.  I have received several comments both pro and con about this bill, and I have actively sought the views of current and past school board members I had not heard from.  If the bill is not passed this year, it will probably be reintroduced next year.  In the meantime, we can continue to learn more about the concept.

Interview with Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross

The Chittenden County Democrats Show on CCTV Channel 17, hosted by Bob Hooper and Rep. Mike Yantachka, featured Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross in May.  Secretary Ross discussed changes in the grading of Maple Syrup, the proposed efforts to reduce the effects of agricultural practices on Lake Champlain, the growing locavore movement, and the federal Farm Bill and its implications for Vermont dairy farmers.   Watch the interview here.

The Word in the House 4/3/2014 - The Budget

This is the part of the legislative session that becomes the most politically contentious and, for me, the most perplexing because we are dealing with very large sums of money.  Of the three money bills that are must-pass in every session of the legislature, the Transportation bill, the Miscellaneous Tax bill, and the Budget bill, the latter two were debated and passed during this last week in March.  Now they will be considered by the Senate, probably changed, and sent back to the House in the next couple of weeks. 

The revenues raised by the Miscellaneous Tax Bill presented by the Ways and Means Committee must balance with the expenditures in the Budget Bill presented by the Appropriations Committee.  These committees work very hard for three months with input from state government employees, legislators and citizens to craft bills that make investments in strategies that will reduce future costs, address poverty, tackle opiate addiction, spur job growth, fund needed programs for the elderly and the disabled, and drastically reduce Vermont’s reliance on one-time funds.  Not one legislator wants to spend money unnecessarily and everyone wants the money that is spent to benefit Vermont and its citizens.  The problem comes in trying to decide how to accomplish those competing goals. 

When these bills get to the floor they invariably divide the legislature along party lines.  While one side focuses on the size of the budget, the other focuses on what the budget can accomplish with the available resources.  Compounding the problem have been the federal cutbacks to food stamps and low income heating assistance. When the available resources are not sufficient to address the needs, a decision must be made to either find additional revenues or to ignore the needs.  Increasing taxes is always seen as a solution to be avoided unless the need is perceived to be great enough. This, however, can be a subjective judgment colored by political philosophies. 

Representative Martha Heath, Chair of the Appropriations Committee, stated what her committee tried to accomplish.  At the beginning of the session Governor Shumlin proposed a budget to support his goal of providing more effective intervention and treatment for opiate addicts.  He asked for $14M in revenue based on taxing health insurance claims.  This was unacceptable to the legislature because it would drive up health care costs at a time when we are trying to reduce them.  Instead, by making cuts to proposed expenditures and employing alternate funding strategies, the additional revenue needed was reduced to $3.3M. 

This year’s budget addresses the issue of homeless Vermonters by doubling the rental subsidy program, increasing funding for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and increasing grants for homeless shelters.  It helps those who are living in poverty by increasing support to make high quality child care affordable and available so that parents can go to work.  In addition, substance abuse and mental health issues have been identified as the number one barrier to obtaining jobs for those served by the state’s Reach Up program.  Over $1M is appropriated to address this important issue.

The highly publicized opiate addiction problem facing our state and the toll it takes on our communities and our safety is also addressed. The budget invests over $10M in additional treatment and recovery capacity and expands statewide the successful rapid intervention program that moves addicted offenders into treatment prior to arraignment under certain circumstances because treatment is much more productive than imprisonment. The need is great, and these strategies, along with the efforts of our local communities, will reduce the number of Vermonters struggling with addiction.
While Vermont continues to do relatively well as we come out of the Great Recession, investment in job growth remains critical. The budget increases funding for Regional Development Corporations and Planning Commissions, invests in further capacity for the Employee Ownership Center, increases investments in our transportation infrastructure, and increases funding for the Working Lands Initiative to further spur this rapidly growing part of Vermont’s economy.
One of government’s most important roles is to insure that the disabled and the elderly are able to live with dignity and with as much independence as possible. This budget fully funds the caseload increases in Developmental Services and continues our investment in serving elderly Vermonters in their homes as they age through the Choices in Care program.   
This budget provides less funding than I would prefer for programs like low income weatherization and it fails to make whole the federal cuts to the food stamp program.  There is also a smaller increase in payments to home health care providers and to health care providers for Medicaid patients. But I support this budget because it is the best that could be accomplished at this time.