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Dover, Wilmington get update on lobbying for education funding reform

DOVER—The towns of Dover and Wilmington took the unusual step of hiring a lobbyist, Kevin Ellis of the Montpelier-based KSE Partners LLC, to advocate for the two communities on education funding issues at the Statehouse this year.

In an update presented by Ellis and Dover School Board member Laura Sibilia at a June 5 Dover Selectboard meeting, Ellis said that the town’s efforts were bearing fruit.

The best example of this, he said, was legislation that was drafted at the tail end of this year’s legislative session. It calls for the creation of a study group to examine Acts 60 and 68, the state’s education funding laws, and how financial and other resources are allocated.

Ellis said this was validation that the Legislature understands the towns’ concerns. Dover and Wilmington have long contended that Act 60, enacted in 1998, and Act 68, enacted in 2004, have unfairly affected schools in property-rich towns like theirs, and that while financing equity more or less has been achieved, there remains a gap in educational opportunity.

Earlier this year, the towns contracted with Northern Economic Consulting of Westford to prepare a report to prove those points, which ultimately inspired the legislation that was co-sponsored by Reps. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, and John Moran, D-Wardsboro, to create the study group.

“Our job was to make Act 60 and 68 an issue,” said Manwaring.

Moran said that by creating a concrete study and hiring a lobbyist, Dover and Wilmington managed to advance their cause and get the Legislature to take it seriously.

While board members were pleased with the Legislature’s action, they still expressed concern that Gov. Peter Shumlin’s longstanding support for Acts 60 and 68 might undermine the study group’s efforts.

West Dover resident Linda Anelli asked Ellis, “How realistic is it to bring about a fundamental change in the governor’s view on Act 60 and 68?”

Ellis said that while Shumlin has a much broader voice in education policy, the issue rests with House Speaker Shap Smith, Senate President John Campbell, and the Legislature as a whole.

Ellis said that over the summer, the Act 60/68 study group will be collecting data.

Dover Selectboard member William “Buzzy” Buswell said he supports the study group, but said the legislation doesn’t address what constitutes an adequate education for a Vermont student.

He also said he still wants to see the issue settled in court, and asked, “How long do we pursue this avenue [the study] we’re pursuing before we consider legal action?”

Dover School Board Chair Rich Werner told Buswell that it would be futile to try suing the state over its education funding system. “There’s no basis for legal action,” he said.

Dover Selectboard member Sherm Jenne agreed, saying the study group process would provide Shumlin and the Legislature the information they need to address the issues.

Wilmington Selectboard member Susan Haughwout stressed that for the study to be truly effective, it had to address the issues at a statewide level and take the debate beyond just the concerns of Dover and Wilmington.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #157 (Wednesday, June 20, 2012).

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