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.

Legislative Report 3/26/2014 - More on Education Financing

A few days before Town Meeting, I wrote a post in Front Porch Forum explaining what factors go into how the statewide property tax which funds K-12 public education is calculated.  In the post I stated that school budgets, and therefore spending, are determined by local school districts, and the state's role determined by Acts 60 and 68 is to fund the budgets approved by the voters.  The local school districts receive targeted revenues which include Federal Title I money, donations, and some categorical state aid such as Special Education, transportation, technical education, adult education, and Essential Early Education. The amount of the budget that remains comes from the state Education Fund.

The Education Fund has several sources of revenue: a) about 35% of sales tax revenue, b) 100% of the lottery revenue, c) an amount transferred from the General Fund and other sources, and d) the statewide property tax less the Homestead Property Tax Adjustment.   The statewide property tax is calculated based on the projected value of all the property in the state (the Grand List), how the assessments in a town compare to fair market values (the CLA or Common Level of Appraisal), the per pupil spending in the school district, and whether per pupil spending in the district exceeds the state average by more than 23%.  There are two tax rates, the Residential and Non-Residential.  Residential taxpayers may get a tax adjustment based on their household income and house site value. These tax rates have to be set to amounts that provide the revenues needed for the Education Fund disbursements.
This year saw school budgets increase by only a few percent, while property tax rates in some towns went up by several more percent due to decreasing statewide property values, fewer students, and reductions in federal education spending. Based on projected school budget increases, a decrease in federal Special Education funding, and $20M less of one time funds used last year, the Commissioner of Taxes projected an increase of 7 cents in the statewide property tax rate this year.  The defeat of 35 school budgets throughout the state drove home the contention that the formula for state aid to education is not only too complicated to understand but has become unduly burdensome on property taxes.
Since Town Meeting, serious efforts have been made to rebalance the funding methodology by the Ways and Means Committee, and last week they announced that the increase in the Residential rate would be reduced from 7 cents to 4 cents, and the Non-Residential rate increase would go from 7 cents to 8 cents instead.  This will also result in an equivalent decrease of 3 cents in the Residential rate for the CCS District from that published in the Town Meeting school report.   Other suggestions have been considered including adjusting the current use formula and transferring additional money from the General Fund to the Education Fund.  Since the legislature always passes a balanced budget, if new revenues (taxes) cannot be found, then cuts have to be made somewhere else if more money is to be transferred.

The legislature has to address the education funding issue both immediately and strategically.  The reduction of 3 cents is a start, but we have to find a way to depend less on the property tax in the long term.  The Education Committee is also working on a plan to restructure the school system, but there are no guarantees that such a plan would save money.  There are still several weeks before a final budget and tax package will be voted on.  The committees are continuing to work to make the hard decisions that will be acceptable to both the House and Senate as well as to Governor Shumlin.  They will eventually strike a balance, but I predict that no one will be totally satisfied.

The Word in the House 3/20/2014 - Transportation Budget

There are three bills that are must-pass in every session of the legislature: the Transportation bill, the Miscellaneous Tax bill and the Budget bill.  Because these bills deal with raising and spending money, they are constitutionally required to originate in the House.  The first of these to come up for a vote is usually the Transportation bill; and indeed, it will be voted on this week.

The Transportation bill is important because it raises the revenue and provides the state’s share of funding to maintain our highways, bridges, local roads, railways, airports, and public transportation.  This year’s $665M budget contains no new taxes, thanks to the forward thinking changes made last year to the way gasoline is taxed as well as to the aggressive pursuit of federal grants for a variety of projects.  There are $104M in one-time funds in this Transportation budget, including $15M of Federal Highway Emergency funds, $41.1M in grants and earmarks, $45M in FEMA funds and $3.6M in Emergency Relief and Assistance Funds as Vermont continues to recover from tropical storm Irene and other storm disaster events.

It is no surprise that this winter’s harsh weather, while great for the ski areas, has been tough on the road crews and the maintenance budget.  In the meantime, winter doesn’t seem to want to release its hold on us.  So, the Transportation Committee included $3M in flexibility to allow the Secretary of Transportation to transfer funds from the regular maintenance category to the winter maintenance category to cover the extra costs.  This transfer will not impact appropriations for town programs. Another supplemental appropriation of $1.6M was included for spring leveling specifically targeted to improve Class 1 Town Highways as well as other state roads. 

Alternative transportation infrastructure is also supported by the budget.  One interesting project is the Cross Vermont Trail.  This is a bike trail that is planned to span the state from East to West.  $84K has been appropriated to help secure a $1.2M federal earmark that may be in jeopardy if the project doesn’t move forward. 

    The committee was also able to find some efficiency savings by moving Vermont’s Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) better known as “Vermont Local Roads” from its current home at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester to the Vermont Transportation Training Center (VTTC) in Berlin. LTAPs provide training and technical advice to municipal transportation employees and officials.  The committee weighed the concerns of local officials who like the level of customer service they get from the current Vermont Local Roads program against the obvious benefits of using the existing VTTC space and administration to increase programming with the same budget. This move will eliminate $80k-$90k annual charges for rent, payroll services and administration, triple the amount that can be spent on training/programming with level funding, and preserve and expand current programming for municipal road officials and employees.
Charlotte is expected to receive more than $200,000 from the state for bridge, highway and road maintenance.  State police coverage is also funded through this budget.
Let me finish by reminding you that you may be able to find a little extra money for yourself.  The State Treasurer’s Office has more than $57 million in unclaimed property.  Financial property becomes “unclaimed” after a business or non-profit entity loses contact with a customer for a period of years.  There is no charge to claim funds through the State Treasurer’s Office.  Search at www.MissingMoney.Vermont.gov or call 802-828-2407.

Legislative Report 3/12/2014 - Doyle Poll Results from Charlotte

One of the highlights of Town Meeting Day in Vermont is the opportunity Vermonters have of registering their opinions on a variety of issues in the Doyle Poll.  This survey has been conducted for many decades by Senator Bill Doyle, and I want to thank the 179 Charlotters who filled out the survey this year.  Here for your consideration is a tally of the responses.

%Not Sure
Should drivers be prohibited from using cell phones while driving?
Should Vermont legalize marijuana?
Should wind turbines be constructed on Vermont ridge lines?
Should Vermont increase its minimum wage?
Are you concerned about the increasing use of opiates in Vermont?
Should we reduce the Vermont prison population via alternatives for nonviolent offenders?
Should food products sold in Vermont produced with genetic engineering be labeled?
Do you believe that Vermont is an affordable place to live?
Are statewide cell service and broadband important to the future of Vermont’s economy?
Should natural gas be an important part of Vermont’s economy?
Should Vermont create a state bank?
Do you believe Vermont health care is moving in the right direction?
Do you believe that increasing costs of education are unsustainable?
Do you believe that our national government collects too much information on the lives of American citizens?

 Most respondents approve of the bill prohibiting hand-held cell phone use while driving, which was passed by the House a few weeks ago. Two questions pertain to the types of energy being promoted in Vermont, wind turbines on ridge lines and natural gas.  In both cases a plurality of respondents favored these types of energy development while a significant number had not yet made up their minds.

Several questions relate to the quality of life in Vermont and reveal concerns that the legislature will need to deal with.  The greatest concern was directed at the increasing use of opiates in Vermont.  This topic was the focus of Governor Shumlin's State of the State address in January and is receiving a lot of attention in both the House and Senate. Respondents seem to agree by a wide margin that there is a better way to handle non-violent offenders than keeping them in prison, and the legislature is currently looking into ways to increase the use of diversion programs to get offenders back on the right track rather than simply incarcerating them. Legalization of marijuana is favored by a slim margin, and comments indicate that feelings are strong on both sides of this issue.

With school budgets and property taxes being the hot topic on town Meeting day, it is not surprising that strong opinions related to these issues were reflected in the poll.  A heavy majority of respondents felt that rising education costs are unsustainable.  Comments added to the poll reflected a desire for the legislature to come up with a new method of financing education that puts less of a burden on property taxes.  A majority of respondents also felt that Vermont is not an affordable place to live, an attitude that is likely related to high property taxes.  On the other hand, a majority also believe that Vermont is on the right track with respect to health care policy.

While hand-held cell phone use while driving is frowned upon, statewide cell service and broadband is overwhelmingly seen as an important factor in Vermont's economy.  This is not the case for creating a state bank, which has been promoted in some circles recently.  South Dakota is the only state with a state bank and is looked upon as a model by the promoters of the idea in Vermont.

The idea of labelling genetically engineered foods is still a controversial subject in the legislature, not because of its popularity as reflected by these poll results as well as by the overwhelming support it received during a Senate hearing in February, but because of the concern that Vermont could be subject to an expensive lawsuit by Monsanto if the bill passes.  Nevertheless, passage of the bill in some form seems likely before the end of the session.
Finally, more than 2/3 of respondents think that the federal government collects too much information on us.