Act 46: the death knell of local control

The pressure is on from Montpelier, but Windham Northeast could consider other governance models besides the proposed super-merger which are allowable under Act 46 — including none at all

WESTMINSTER — The so-called “Brigham decision,” which was the opening salvo in the Legislature's attempt to create the equality of school funding mandated by the Vermont Supreme Court, was also the beginning of the end of local control over public schools.

Act 46, with its disingenuous mandate to effect educational “equity, accountability, and transparency” in the form of super-sized school districts, is the death knell of local control.

The fundamental flaw which has underpinned all of Vermont tax policy since the arrival of Brigham is its dependance on the property tax, an 18th-century agrarian anachronism that as an identifier of the ability to pay makes about as much sense as taxing tea.

Yet every year, the Legislature goes around and around trying to adjust the formula to create “tax equity,” but what we end up with is a situation where in towns like Brattleboro and Dummerston, the homestead portion of the Grand List ends up subsidizing the second-home and commercial-property owners.

It's surreal, and it's even more surreal when you remember that the original purpose of the sixth cent added to the sales tax was to relieve the tax burden on all those non-homestead-property-tax payers.

Now we have a new temporary patch called Act 46, which in the end is nothing more than a smokescreen created by that same Legislature to deflect attention from their own inability to live within both their own means as well as those means in the General Fund which used to help support education.

It's a simple equation: student counts down, school budgets up, so that must be the cause of rising taxes, and to fix it we need bigger school districts.

Well, let me tell you, that's a bunch of bunk that makes about as much sense as consolidating the towns on a county-wide basis to save on the cost of road graders.

We will never have education-tax equity in this state until our well-meaning but obtuse Legislature finally realizes that income, not property, is the only real measure of the ability to pay, and since we already have a two-tiered property tax system, we can still wring some additional funding out of second home owner and developers.

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But let's also talk about accountability and transparency.

Those of us who look at school politics from the inside tend to regard Act 46 as the “Superintendent of Schools Relief Act.”

In the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union District - Athens, Grafton, Rockingham, and Westminster, plus the Bellows Falls Union High School - that's a whole lot of nights out for your central administrators, and I am very much sympathetic to that.

However, the reason for all those nights out is that these school boards with which the administrators are spending so much time have been empowered by their towns to provide responsible oversight over school operations - the very “transparency” and “accountability” which Act 46 purports to enhance through the creation of megalith school districts.

I don't buy it.

We in Windham Northeast could consider other governance models besides the proposed super-merger which are allowable under Act 46, including none at all.

However the full-court press is on, and in the classic used-car sales pitch coming from the power players in Montpelier, we are being told if we don't take this deal now, it will be gone forever.


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Recently, I received a postcard in the mail urging me to vote no on the WNESU merger proposal. The card was metered in Westminster, unsigned, and had no return address.

Among the many bullet points being proffered was the importance of preserving the democratic tradition of discussing the state of the schools and school budgets at Town Meeting.

I found this deeply ironic because Town Meeting is where we stand up, state our name, and advocate for what we think is right. So I did some digging and uncovered the names of the senders and, no surprise, they are all well meaning people, who in my judgment have given a big black eye to their cause. That was a pretty bad stumble.

But I have to say, it doesn't even come close to the permanent damage this poorly thought-out merger proposal will do to equity, accountability, and transparency.

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