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Pinning down the outcomes

Dover to study economic impact of Acts 60, 68 on town

DOVER—Taxpayers sent about $11 million in education taxes to the state this past year. The town keeps $2 million for the Dover Elementary School.

That has totalled about $150 million over 10 years that residents have paid to educate students in less prosperous communities across the state.

In an attempt to determine the economic impacts of Vermont’s educational funding structure on their residents and economies, town representatives — in alliance with their Wilmington counterparts — want to fund an evaluation of Act 60 and Act 68.

At its Tuesday meeting, Dover’s Selectboard reached a speedy decision on the evaluation with a 3-0 vote in favor of funding this study. There was little opposition from the public.

In its request for proposals (RFP), Dover will seek a consultant to collect data on the local economic impact since the inception of the laws that were designed to collect local education taxes into a statewide pool and redistribute the funds to towns.

The town also wants the consultant to study if the state’s education funding structure has resulted in an equal educational opportunity for local students, as the state legislation was intended.

The costs and outcomes of the two acts in the Deerfield Valley have been embroiled in a mixture of painful reality and hard myth.

Consequently, representatives from the two towns want to mine definitive data on local impacts of the state’s educational funding system.

In discussions, citizens of the two towns said they were open to the possibility that Acts 60 and 68 have not harmed the local economy.

But they doubted it.

Vermont children deserve quality educations, said Dover School Board member Laura Sibilia, who also serves as the executive director of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce and core member of the Southeastern Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS).

“Is the current [funding] mechanism the best we can do?” Sibilia asks.

Gold towns and receiving towns

The state’s current educational funding system as established by Act 60, enacted in 1998 and Act 68, enacted in 2004, attempted to equalize public education by removing the economic barriers faced by poorer towns to provide their students with equal educational opportunities.

According to JFO materials, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brigham v. State of Vermont “found that the existing education finance system violated the state’s constitutional guarantee to equal protection under the law.”

Act 60 eliminated the spectrum of tax rates towns paid toward their schools based on grand lists, says the Vermont Department of Education’s website. Under Act 60, tax rates “are directly tied to per-pupil spending” and also established a statewide education tax rate of $1.10 per $100 of property value.

The act also designated towns as either “sending” or “receiving.” Wealthier sending towns pay more into the state’s education fund to make up the funding difference for receiving towns.

Vermont’s educational funding system has met with controversy while pitting sending and receiving communities against one another.

Jeffrey Metzler outlines pro and con responses to Act 60 in a 2002 article published in The Journal of Law and Education.

According to Metzler, sending towns Dover, Searsburg, and Whitingham withheld $648,000 in property taxes and attempted “to organize a statewide civil disobedience campaign” to withhold Act 60-slated funds.

Metzler also quoted proponent Diane Wolk, former chair of the state school board: “What [the gold towns] are going through now is what 90 percent of towns have gone through for years and years — having to make choices.”

Parallel studies

The final contract for the Deerfield Valley consultant is contingent on the Dover Selectboard approving the submitted bids.

Dover will fund the evaluation. Wilmington will help supplement the RFP process with personnel.

The Deerfield Valley towns’ RFP follows on the heels of a similar RFP solicited by the Legislature.

The Legislative Joint Fiscal Office (JFO) has been given the task of hiring a consultant to evaluate the outcomes of Acts 60 and 68.

Sibilia told the board that the state’s RFP was “one of the most hopeful things that have happened in a long time” regarding the state laws.

Still, she said, she felt “skeptical” about the state’s RFP helping Dover at all.

“It think this is the wrong step to be taken,” said resident William “Buzzy” Buswell. The state only “wants to pat itself on the back,” he said. “[Dover’s action] should be a legal action.”

Buswell said Dover should build a coalition with other “sending” towns, and file suit against the state.

He said when the Vermont Supreme Court threw out a similar suit against Act 60 a decade ago, it did so because towns hadn’t felt the implications of the new education funding legislation.

But, said Buswell, only about 20 state municipalities qualified as sending towns 10 years ago. There are more than 80 now, he said.

“I’d like nothing better than to see Dover in a lawsuit,” Sibilia said to Buswell, “but one we could win.”

If the Deerfield Valley RFP uncovers inequities in the current education funding system, then that data could “become the base of a lawsuit,” said Sibilia.

The Dover School Board’s identification of education funding and its “big connection” to economic development as a board goal set the RFP wheels in motion, said Sibilia.

At a meeting last week of Dover School Board members, Dover and Wilmington Selectboard members, and state Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, members expressed concern about the state’s reaction to the RFP.

“If I’m looking at one town, I’m thinking someone’s a crybaby,” said Dover Selectboard member Randy Turk. It’s harder to ignore data from many towns, he added.

Manwaring said that eventually the state will have to “come to grips” with the educational funding system’s sustainability.

Including uniqueness

In its RFP, the group also asked the prospective consultant to suggest next steps “that would inform policymakers about the sustainability of the Vermont Education Funding Mechanism.”

Alliance members want a town-specific study to ensure any unique economic aspects in the area do not become “smoothed over” amid the state’s overall data.

Turk said a potential issue with the state’s evaluation will be the averaging of Acts 60 and 68’s benefits over struggles they’ve created in some communities.

“Just because the average says it’s okay doesn’t mean it’s okay,” said Turk.

The Vermont Supreme Court identified three goals in its 1997 Brigham decision, which directed the state to change the way schools are funded to provide equal opportunity for all students.

The state’s first goal: reduce the per-pupil spending gaps that correlated to property wealth.

The ruling’s next goal was to “reduce the disparity in academic achievement among Vermont’s school children.” The final goal was to “reduce the disparity in education tax burdens among Vermont taxpayers.”

The state’s evaluation won’t revisit the Brigham decision, according to documents from the Joint Fiscal Office, but to study “to what extent” the current educational funding system meets Acts 60 and 68’s objectives.

The state’s RFP also looks to study if demographic changes have affected outcomes or if the legislation has created unintended outcomes.

The Legislature appropriated $200,000 for the evaluation, which will be due to the JFO on Jan. 18, 2012.

Dover and Wilmington expect their evaluation completed by Dec. 1, 2011, in time for inclusion with the JFOs.

A focused scope

The Deerfield Valley towns’ RFP closely mirrors the scope of the state’s but with a focus on how Vermont’s education funding structure has affected Windham County towns.

To do so, the evaluation will compare Dover, Wilmington, and other Windham County towns against the three largest sending communities, three smaller communities, Vermont’s three largest communities, and three other receiving communities.

The alliance members expect the consultant to use factors like students’ access to curricular and extracurricular opportunities, equal treatment for taxpayers, tax incremental financial district impacts, and “the relationship between per-pupil spending and the opportunity the total amount spent affords each community.”

Members also hope to fathom demographic changes in the studied towns and determine if they occurred independent of Act 60 and 68 or were caused by the education funding system.

Finally, the evaluation should state any economic impacts that the education funding system has had on local communities.

The Deerfield Valley’s evaluation will include a review of existing education finance system studies and of the “Strategic Economic Development Plan for the Towns of Dover and Wilmington, Vermont” study. Also at the prospective consultant’s disposal will be all the data collected through the SeVEDS process.

The consultant will also act as a liaison between the selected study towns and the company hired by the JFO; the consultant will also provide testimony to the Legislature.

Quality, yes. Equitable?

According to Sibilia, Dover sends $13 million annually in education taxes to the state. The town retains $2 million to fund Dover Elementary School.

“We’re spending $11 million to educate other communities’ children,” she said.

If the state expects towns like Dover to continue funding other communities, then it needs to create a sustainable system, Sibilia said.

The bulk of Dover’s education tax money comes from businesses and second homeowners. Most of the town’s year-round population is income sensitive, she said.

Dover stands as the state’s fourth-largest sending area behind Windham County neighbor Stratton. Wilmington, said Sibilia ranks as the 15th largest.

According to Sibilia, Wilmington sends approximately $5 million in education taxes to the state.

On July 12, Wilmington will vote on whether to approve a bond to consolidate and renovate the Twin Valley schools. School officials and school board members expect consolidation will cut costs and improve educational opportunities.

But, said Sibilia, residents are afraid of their tax rate going even higher.

Sibilia agrees with the overall premise of providing good education contained in Acts 60 and 68.

She feels, however, a “failure to define equity” is a weakness for Vermont’s education funding system.

The money from the sending towns ends up as block grants sent to receiving towns for education funding, but these grants do not define equitable, quality programs or curriculums, she said.

‘Buzzy Fund’

Officials and community members working on the RFP initiated the process two weeks ago.

Funding for the evaluation will come from the “Buzzy Fund,” named for motion-maker Buswell.

At Town Meeting, Dover voters approved $60,000 for a fund that Buswell suggested creating for litigation against the state.

“You have to have the facts before you can fight,” said Sibilia.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #108 (Wednesday, July 6, 2011).

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