House passes historic education reform package

[T]he House approved a plan on Thursday to merge the state’s 272 school districts into fewer, larger school systems.

H.361 mandates that school districts study merger options with neighboring districts. By 2019, all districts must be part of PreK-12, "integrated education systems" with a minimum of 1,100 pupils. The legislation also puts a cap on school spending.

Proposed amendments to the bill on Thursday included the elimination of a controversial spending cap on local school districts and the formation of regional districts centered on tech center catchment areas. Both amendments failed and the House passed H.361 on a voice vote. For the final version of the House bill, click here.

House Speaker Shap Smith said the legislation "marks a step toward real progress for students and taxpayers."

“Vermonters want property tax relief and greater equity in education across our delivery system. Balancing what’s best for our kids at a price we can afford is no easy task, but Vermonters are counting on us to make tough decisions that provide better outcomes,” Smith said in a statement. "The passage of H.361 marks the first step in a process to improve education quality, control costs, promote sustainability, and provide students with opportunities to succeed.”

An amendment from the House Ways & Means Committee set the homestead property tax rate at $0.98, the same as this year, but added one cent to the rate for nonresidential property. Under the House bill, the rate goes up from $1.515 to $1.525 per $100 of assessed property value. The tax increase generates $16 million in additional revenues for the Education Fund.

Another amendment to the bill from House Ways & Means sets aside $620,000 in incentives for districts that merge.

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, proposed 15 regional Consolidated Administrative Districts that would share boundaries with existing technical centers.

Scheuermann said the House education bill did not meaningfully transform the state’s public education system or deliver on property tax reform. Her amendment was voted down 83 to 37.

Mixed support for H.361

Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, said the same issues have been facing the state’s schools -- and taxpayers -- for too long, and it’s time to do something.

“One of the reasons that nothing has changed is that every time we ask the two districts [U-32, and Montpelier] to explore merging, who did we ask? We asked the people who work in the systems. Human nature will tell you...” what will happen, said Klein, “...when you ask people to cut their own throats.”

Klein supports the 2.95 percent spending cap for schools because it is a straightforward way to communicate the Legislature's attempt to take pressure off of property taxpayers.

“There are three little letters c-a-p that you don’t have to be in the education business to understand,” Klein said. “We didn’t get here overnight, and we’re not going to solve it overnight."

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, urged her fellow lawmakers to vote down H.361.

“What you are voting for here is to put your school districts into an unknown and an uncertain process,” said Browning. “I don’t think forced mergers … shotgun marriages are the way to go.”

Cap discussion not re-opened on floor

Rep. Christopher Pearson, P-Burlington, sought to strike a two-year spending cap if statewide education spending exceeds a 2.95 percent threshold.

Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, a member of the House Education Committee, said Pearson's attempt to delete the caps could destroy the underlying legislation. “This amendment has the potential to totally unravel this bill,” Wright said.

Members of the House Education Committee have stressed that the controversial cap provision will control spending in the two to three years before the consolidated larger school systems are formed and hoped-for cost efficiencies can be realized.

Sharpe explained his take on the cap to Pearson: “My belief is if we don’t do something to bend the curve to respond to taxpayer concern, taxpayers will respond with their own concerns, and they will do damage far beyond what the cap will do.”

High school choice amendment passes

Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, proposed an amendment that gives districts that tuition out secondary students a choice of up to three designated public or independent secondary schools.

School boards in Johnson’s area have sought something “between wide open choice and a single designation ... they have asked to be able to designate more than one high school for people.” Johnson explained that the proposal would open up more options for students.

Key elements of the legislation approved by the House on Thursday include:

  • The minimum number of 1,100 students for each “education district” under the integrated education system is based on average daily membership, not a weighted equalized pupil calculation for students who are disabled, low-income or speak English as a second language.
  • Education districts would replace supervisory union districts in most areas of the state.
  • Towns that are part of education districts will see a reduction in the statewide tax rate of $0.08 in 2020. The tax incentive would be phased out over four years.
  • Districts must submit study reports to the State Board of Education regarding the formation of the integrated education systems. The proposals must be approved by voters.
  • The State Board will offer waivers to districts that are geographically isolated.
  • Any unfunded mandates imposed by the Legislature on school districts will come out of the General Fund.
  • The school budget question on municipal ballots must include proscriptive language that explains the percentage increase in the budget over the previous year. The ballot question must also cite the school district’s per pupil spending rate.

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Amy Ash Nixon

About Amy Ash

Nixon has been a reporter in New England since 1986. She most recently worked for the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Previously, Amy covered communities in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom for The Caledonian-Record. She spent the bulk of her career as a reporter for The Hartford Courant in Connecticut. Nixon also taught middle school language arts in Connecticut for several years.


Follow Amy Ash on Twitter @vegnixon

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