Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, left, confers with House Majority Leader Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, before the start of a veto override session at the Vermont State House in Montpelier on June 17.
Glenn Russell/VTDigger
Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, left, confers with House Majority Leader Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, before the start of a veto override session at the Vermont State House in Montpelier on June 17.

Funding our schools

The Yield Bill is responsible governance: fulfilling our responsibility to voters and communities and setting us up for a more equitable and affordable future

Emilie Kornheiser, state representative for Windham-7, is chair of House Ways and Means, is a parent, and lives on a dirt road in West Brattleboro. You can find her at emiliekornheiser.org.

BRATTLEBORO-I've been talking with folks about property taxes a lot lately. We've also been talking about our schools, our kids, our strong and struggling communities, and the future.

We are in a difficult moment - a moment with no perfect path forward.

I want Vermont, and Brattleboro, to work for all of us, and unexpectedly high property taxes make that hard for most of us. I'm hearing from folks that they are scared. I'm scared too.

These problems are a long time in the making, and I'm hoping that with some clarity, we can figure them out together.

* * *

We have a funny education funding system in Vermont. We vote locally on our budgets, add up all those budgets, and then the Legislature raises property taxes to cover the costs for our schools and kids. We do this each year, often without much attention.

This year, those local school budgets came in much higher than usual.

Budgets were higher because of a perfect storm of real costs - the price of health care, increased student need, loss of federal funding, compensation for our hard-working school staff, inflation, and delayed maintenance.

These unexpectedly high budgets resulted in the possibility of a big increase in property taxes for Vermonters, an average increase of more than 20% - that's 20% over last year, not a rate of 20%.

The bill we passed this session, and then overrode the governor's veto on earlier this month, significantly lowers those expected tax rates - in a realistic, responsible way - while making a concrete action plan for the future.

This year's education funding bill (known as the (1)Yield Bill) reduces property taxes for Vermonters by $95.5 million. That is $26.5 million in new, ongoing revenue to lessen the responsibility on property taxpayers this year and into the future, and $69 million in one-time money to help us through the transition from pandemic-era revenues.

It would have been 33% higher if not for the focused, diligent, collaborative work reflected in this bill.

By pulling every lever we could, we were able to bring average property tax rates down to an increase of about 13%.

In Brattleboro, this means shifting from a rate of $1.7521 per $100,000 of home value last year to a rate of $2.040 this year.

We did this by using unexpected excess tax revenue, adding a one-time transfer to the Education Fund from the state's General Fund, removing a small exemption to the sales tax for cloud-based products, and adding a small increase to the rooms tax for short-term rental bookings.

All of this together added almost $100,000 in "other" revenue to the Education Fund and allowed us to reduce property taxes as much as possible for everyone.

That's what H.887 did - it put together a package to fund our schools at the level local voters in every district approved, while still trying to bring down property tax rates as much as we responsibly could.

The Yield Bill, as drafted and passed by both the House and Senate, sets rates for all three categories of property tax payer - non-homestead (or businesses and rental properties), homestead, and the majority of Vermonters who pay their education taxes based on their income.

* * *

Although the session wrapped up, this is not the end of the story. It's the beginning of a new approach, setting us on a clear, deliberative, and inclusive path to re-imagine our education system - both how we educate our children and how we pay for this essential facet of our community.

We need to do things differently. Our existing system has served us well for many years and has been held up as an example of equity, local deliberative democracy, and educational excellence.

But it needs to change significantly to meet our current moment - to adapt to (2)a new federal landscape, to increasing wealth inequality, and to our changing demographics.

H.887 is, in short, responsible governance: fulfillin(3)g the Legislature's responsibility to voters and communities and setting up our state for a more equitable and affordable future. And this is a tough time and a tough conversation.

* * *

Vermonters can't afford rising taxes like this. I think most of us support our schools and are willing to vote for responsible budgets that give our teachers, students, and families the resources they need.

The hard part is balancing the two, and H.887 tried to accomplish that goal.

I don't want to pretend this won't be a hard year, and there are still many other details left unsaid. I'm happy to sit down with any of you to talk about how this challenge affects each of us, and what we can do about it.

I'll be at Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro at 10:30 a.m. on July 6 if you would like to join me and talk about the future of our education system, and you can be in touch anytime.

This Voices Legislative Update was submitted to The Commons.

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