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Governor urges towns to rein in school costs at Town Meeting

But shifting the framework of Act 60 is no simple matter, state legislators say

BRATTLEBORO—In his Jan. 15 budget address, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin called on communities to help control the state’s perceived high education tax by taking a fine-tooth comb to school budgets on town meeting day.

Based on projected school budget increases, Shumlin said that the statewide education property tax will increase 5 to 7 cents.

“I urge Vermonters at town meetings across our state this year to carefully scrutinize school budgets that increase per-pupil spending and grow faster than our incomes,” Shumlin said. “Look hard to see if you can achieve savings for better outcomes at a lower cost.”

At least two lawmakers, however, respond that decreasing education taxes is not as simple as going over budget numbers come March.

Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, and Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, who represent districts on the western side of the county, said education funding in Vermont has systemic issues requiring bigger fixes.

According to Manwaring, who serves on the House Committee on Appropriations, containing education spending at the state level is inherently complex.

While the state’s general fund is driven by revenue, the state education fund is spurred by expenses, she said.

Vermont’s education-related property taxes break into two categories: homestead and non-homestead. The homestead portion of the tax, according to Manwaring and Moran, stays within the town. The non-homestead portion, usually on second homes and businesses, goes to the state’s education fund.

In Manwaring’s opinion, Vermont needs to reconsider its process for funding education. Traditionally, funding is viewed in a hierarchical, top-down model, with the state at the top and municipalities below, she said.

The state is responsible for ensuring all Vermont students receive an equal education, Manwaring said, yet empowering the education of kids happens at the local level.

Manwaring said she feels that empowering education at the local level could work in favor of better evaluating the outcomes communities get for their education dollars.

Vermont’s education funding mechanism, Act 60, is more than 15 years old, and and it’s time to put it under the microscope, Moran said.

As an example, Moran pointed to bill H.164, submitted last year by Rep. James Condon, D-Colchester, proposing to fund education through a combined approach: a lower property tax paid by all residents, and an education tax based on income.

Enrollment numbers are down, but overhead costs per student have increased, Moran added.

The state has suggested consolidating smaller schools, Moran said. In some cases, this may help reduce costs by reducing the number of school buildings or staff members.

Moran said he supports voluntary consolidation.

“Geography gets in the way,” he said, adding that in some cases, consolidation has the consequence of children riding buses for hours to and from school.

The Twin Valley School District is an example of school consolidation that has taken place over many years. Wilmington and Whitingham consolidated their middle schools and high schools about 13 years ago. In 2011, voters approved folding the towns’ elementary schools into the Twin Valley system.

“This is a systems problem,” said Moran.

Voters can approve or reject school budgets, he said, adding that the state needs a better method of funding education.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #239 (Wednesday, January 29, 2014).

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