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Voices / Letters from readers

Have 20 years of overtaxing towns and underfunding their schools pushed some schools over the edge?

RE: “State education funding report prompts reps to ‘kick up dust’” [News, Jan. 29]:

For more than 20 years, Vermont’s smaller towns have been overtaxed and their schools underfunded, according to the Pupil Weighting Factors Report, a $300,000 study of current school funding legislation recently issued by the Secretary of Education. Hurry, and you may be able to save your school.

The state has been raising enough tax dollars — it simply has not been distributing those dollars fairly. The current law, a math mystery called Act 60, was passed in 1997, when the state Supreme Court ruled that Vermont’s education-funding system was “constitutionally deficient” — denying students in poorer towns equal access to educational opportunities to be had in wealthier towns.

Unfortunately, according to researchers from the University of Vermont, Rutgers University, and the American Institutes for Research, Act 60 was built on the previous funding plan — which was unsupported by anything measurable.

The resulting statewide property tax funding formula has not only failed to fix the problems. Like a cancer undiagnosed for years, it has also feasted on the meager resources of many small towns.

As small-town residents wondered each year why taxes rose, they saw enrollments in free- and reduced-lunch programs grow, the costs to provide for special-needs students grow, and programs like music and art get curtailed or eliminated.

They also saw families with the resources to do so send their children to better funded out-of-district schools.

The Pupil Weighting Factors Report provides simplified models for adjusting the state’s formula to more accurately calculate the cost of educating poor and English-language-learner (ELL) students. It also includes recommendations to replace the Smalls School Grant with a funding plan more fairly based on school size and population density, realigning educational policy affecting middle- and secondary-school students and for funding special education services.

But have 20 years of overtaxing towns and underfunding their schools pushed some schools over the edge?

The state Legislature is considering four “short form” bills that address these issues, including freezing changes to the education tax financing formula, until the Legislature has acted on the recommendations in the report.

Speaking to a group at the Dover Town Hall, Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, a sponsor of the bills, urged attendees to ask their representatives and members of the Senate and House committees on Education and Ways & Means to support the bills.

“If the Legislature fails to act this year, I believe your towns should hire attorneys and sue or do whatever you can because I believe this is unconstitutional,” said Sibilia, according to an article by Olga Peters in The Commons.

“I’m begging you all, consider testifying,” Sibilia said. “You cannot imagine the power of Vermonters’ informed voices.”

To save your school, find contact info at legislature.vermont.gov/committee/list/2020/Education

Jeff Dickson
Jamaica

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Originally published in The Commons issue #548 (Wednesday, February 12, 2020). This story appeared on page C3.

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