Legislative Report 4/22/2015 - Re-forming Our Education System

During last year's elections, candidates across the state heard complaints about property tax increases due to education spending. Decreasing enrollment and the large number of school districts throughout the state (282) present challenges to how our public schools are governed and funded. The House Education Committee was reorganized this year with a new Chair who previously served on the Ways & Means Committee and was the recognized expert on school funding. Rep. Dave Sharpe of Bristol and his committee have made a serious attempt to create policies that would control spending and property tax increases. The resulting Education bill (H.361) reflects a lot of tri-partisan work that will reform education funding, spending and governance. The bill was passed out of committee unanimously and achieved strong support when it was voted on by the full House: 88 to 55.

The bill has as its purpose the improvement of education quality for all Vermont students through greater equity in student opportunity by maintaining a community supported system, asserting Vermont's commitment to public education, and achieving economies of scale. Elements of the bill include:

  • Creating larger education districts of at least 1100 students by 2019 unless a waiver is granted for special circumstances. The larger education districts comprised of existing smaller districts will share responsibility for educating all pre-K to grade 12 students. The State Board of Education may approve alternate configurations, including existing Supervisory Unions, as long as the proposal advances specific goals like equitable educational opportunities, stable leadership, the flexible and efficient use of resources, increased student-to-adult ratios, budgetary stability and less volatility for taxpayers, and community engagement.
  • Financial support for reorganizing districts including access to grants up to $150,000 and temporary local property tax reductions ranging from $.08 in the first year to $.02 by the fourth year after consolidation.
  • A temporary cap on local spending increases ranging from a 1.4% increase to 4.1%, depending on whether the district chooses to base the increase on its total spending amount or its per equalized pupil spending amount. For example, a district that spends exactly the statewide average (roughly $14,100) would be allowed a 2% increase. A district that spent more would have a lower cap; a district that spent less would have a higher cap.
  • A moratorium is imposed on the legislature passing any new unfunded mandates on schools until 2017.
  • For the year 2016 the statewide non-residential education property tax rate will be $1.525 and the residential rate will be $.98, the same as this year.

The bill also reflects the realization that more work needs to be done. It creates a House-Senate Joint Oversight Committee to monitor, evaluate, and provide a continuing review of matters concerning education policy, education funding, and student outcomes and the intersections of each with corrections, economic development, health care, and human services issues. It charges the Office of Health Care Reform to consider the possibility of transitioning health insurance plans for teachers and administrators to plans offered through Vermont Health Connect by 2018 in order to address the impending excise tax on highly beneficial health insurance plans. It also requires the Secretary of Education propose alternative methods of delivery and payment for special education services, including best use of paraprofessionals, ways to reduce administrative burdens, and increase flexibility in the provision of services.

While the bill reflects a lot of good work and compromise to get the tri-partisan support it received, it still relies heavily on the property tax. I will continue working with my colleagues to come up with funding alternatives that decrease reliance on the property tax. I continue to welcome your thoughts and questions and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).