House Republicans, Democrats strike Act 46 compromise

Paul Dame

Rep. Paul Dame, R-Essex. File photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

A cheeky move by House Republicans appeared to bring an end the impasse over school spending limits on Friday. Dissension over the Act 46 provision has gripped lawmakers since Tuesday when consensus on a House tweak to allowable growth thresholds fell apart and a repeal bill sailed through the Senate.

By lunch time Friday, the repeal bill S.233 was amended by both the House Committee on Education and House Ways and Means. The amendment was a feat that seemed nearly impossible the night before.

But the Speaker’s office disagrees that the Republican’s tactic was what solidified consensus saying that the Education Committee chair worked with lawmakers individually to bring them on board before the House went to the Floor Friday morning. The plan, which will go to the House floor next week, modifies the allowable growth provision for fiscal year 2017 and gives schools more leeway.

House Republicans, in a special caucus on Friday, decided to use a procedural move to get an up or down vote on an amendment offered by Rep. Paul Dame, R-Essex Junction.

Dame’s measure would direct the Agency of Education to use whichever per pupil spending threshold – with or without exclusions – most benefits a school district when calculating per pupil spending. It was one of the few amendments to the Senate’s repeal bill that all members of the House Ed panel agreed to.

“Last week the rules suddenly changed for every school district in the state. Last week week we had a bill on the floor that was pulled back into committee,” Dame said. “On this one simple issue, we would move forward with unity,” he said.

The House Education Committee had approved Dame’s amendment and referred to it as “the fix” because it fixes the inaccurate Agency of Education calculations for allowable growth spending thresholds, which included special education and principal and interest for construction costs. Now, each district will be able to use a per pupil spending number that excludes special education costs and construction principal and interest.

A compromise proposal between House Democrats and Republicans now allows growth in health care costs, reduces the fines for any districts exceed spending limits and instructs the Agency of Education to use the school spending calculation that best serves school districts.

Lawmakers hope to provide school boards with greater clarity as they are finalizing FY17 budgets. The proposal would buy more time for both chambers to continue to figure out how to deal with allowable growth percentage and allow those who want to keep the spending threshold in place to vote against the House Ed Committee’s amendment.

“I, for one, want to apologize to the people of Vermont,” said Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe.”I’m going to do that with my vote to ensure that our school boards know they will be held harmless by this. We can work through other modifications later.”

The stealth move by some GOP members forced a 30-minute recess during which time the House Committee on Education met and finally agreed 8-2-1 on an amendment to S.233 that would get rid of the repeal and replace it with the Dame proposal and impose a 0.9 percent increase in the allowable growth percentage for each district backed by Democrats. For schools that spend over the threshold, the tax penalty would be reduced from a dollar-for-dollar penalty to 25 cents on the dollar.

“It keeps the threshold in place. It keeps cost containment in place, that was important for the House Committee on Education and for the House as we go forward,” explained Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, chair of the house ed panel.

When the speaker reconvened the House, Sharpe told members that the committee had an amendment to the Senate’s repeal bill and asked members not to bring forward the Dame amendment for a separate vote, “we would appreciate a no vote.” And he got it – 85 voted to keep the bill moving through committee and 57 – including some members of the House ed panel – voted to pull it and put it to a vote.

After the floor vote, the House Ways and Means Committee voted 9-2-0 in favor of the House Ed Panel’s amendment to the Senate repeal bill. It will now move to the House floor for a vote when lawmakers reconvene on Tuesday.

Rep. Adam Greshin, I-Warren, didn’t vote for the measure because he said the whole process was making a mockery of the work lawmakers invested in Act 46. “I was willing to do everything but the penalty reduction,” Greshin said. “Many school boards made challenging decisions to remain at or below the thresholds and subsequently we’ve reduced the penalty to the point where I think we make the hard work they have done less satisfying.”

Last evening, the House Ed Panel worked through the dinner hour trying to wade through a proposal made to them by a subcommittee pulled together by House Speaker Shap Smith with three members from House Ed and three members from Ways and Means that met privately Wednesday night and most of Thursday. The idea was to put anything and everything on the table, old and new ideas, have frank discussions and try to come to consensus. But it didn’t sit well with several members of both committees.

Most members of the House panel had come to the Statehouse Thursday morning expecting to vote on the amendment to S.233 that they had carefully crafted the previous afternoon and evening. Some members were notably upset by the secretive process that ensued.

“This really turns me off,” said Rep. Kirk Wright, R-Burlington, who is on the ed committee. “I’ve been trying to work with the other side, to the point of upsetting party leadership – and then this?”

On the House Ways and Means panel, Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, was equally frustrated, “Anytime there is a lack of transparency like this it makes you feel like you aren’t listened to.”

Sharpe apologized to his committee Thursday night before pitching the proposal developed by the special subcommittee. “This was not my favorite way of moving forward. The speaker asked for three people from this committee and three from Ways and Means that are from across the spectrum in terms of philosophy and party affiliation to see if we could come to an agreement to bring this committee and the committee next door to an understanding that didn’t lead to a train wreck,” he said.

Since both committees want to look at ways to modify the spending threshold for FY18, several members thought repealing it for a year would make it more difficult to get it back into Act 46.

“If what we do here is not found favorable next door or not found favorable on the floor the next vote is to repeal the thresholds period,” said Sharpe. “While this may seem too soft, it is still too hard for some people who want repeal. No matter what we will never get those votes so in considering votes on the floor, the elimination of low spending towns not only has a foundation in logic -that they are doing what we are asking them to do to keep their spending down – it also has ramifications for votes.”

It isn’t clear how the Senate will view amendments to the repeal bill. Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, who introduced S.233 says last minute changes are counterproductive.

“Last year we came up with something at the last minute that had all kinds of unintended consequences. Without hard data and numbers, I’m concerned that any other proposal is going to have unintended consequences,” Zuckerman said.

Tiffany Danitz Pache

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  • Rep. Paul Dame

    I think the story is great, but a more accurate headline would match the first line of the story “Republicans Move Ends impasse on Education Bill”
    If we made a compromise, I don’t see what it is. As was mentioned it didn’t come out of committee with full support of Republicans, and you are not going to see too much support on the House floor for what the committee came with.

  • John Freitag

    The fact is that Act 46 is a ill conceived and poorly executed attempt to centralize how Vermont provides education to our children. This top down one size fits all plan has clearly done more harm than good and has tied most school boards and administrators in knots trying to deal with the unintended consequences. It now seems that the legislators are in the same boat.
    Unfortunately , the ones who have suffered the most are our children who have had the people who are suppose to be concerned with their daily education spending countless hours dealing with the unworkable and damaging results of this hastily passed legislation.

    • edward letourneau

      I’m really tired of hearing the children are being harmed. Vermont is spending close to double what other states spend on education. If we use the mantra the children are being harmed, we also have to think all the kids in the other 49 stated are being harmed — yet there is no evidence of that.

      The fact is Vermont received grant after grant that led to hiring more people then are needed for a great education system. Now the cost of that hiring is on the home owners — and no one want to accept the fact that we can’t afford it.

      • rosemarie jackowski

        Ed, I agree. There is no real connection between money spent and quality of education.
        Also, the focus should be on cost/quality and not on condoms in Bennington. Thanks for what you do on the Board.

  • Megs Keir

    Speaking as a school board director, we depend on accurate information from the Agency of Education. In the past several months it has become clear that the AOE is having a hard time keeping up with the formulas and calculations that they are required to implement in establishing each district’s “numbers”…including the calculation of how many equalized pupils are in a district. This in turn impacts the calculation of “per pupil spending” and, after numerous other calculations and exclusions, etc., the Agency calculates our tax rates.
    The AOE is also over-burdened with Act 46 work as school districts across the state turn to AOE to guide them through the new requirement to form unified school districts, while also implementing new mandated preschool programs and mandated budget reductions.
    In the newest twist from the House Ed Committee, the AOE would be required to calculate the Act 46 caps “both ways” and then send each district the “best” rates. I can only imagine how overwhelmed the Agency will be, and how many mistakes will be made. Districts have no way to check AOE numbers, so they are at the mercy of the Agency’s ability to accurately compute this consortium of numbers that determine local tax rates.
    The Education committees in both legislative houses should be required to vet all legislative initiatives through professsionals who are schooled in the complexities of Vermont Education accounting. This is too important to just “do something” and see “how it sugars out.”

    • Jasen Boyd

      The answer here is to set an allowable cost per student, (Say $14,000 per student which is the state average) and then tell school you can spend up to that amount per student and provide incentives for schools to pay less. Your student count is the number of students you have in the school at the start of the year. So, if you have 500 students in your school than your budget would be $7,000,000. This provides true equality in education spending and is an easy formula that everyone understands.

      • Andrew Kirkaldy

        So if schools have different levels of special education spending, or overhead costs, or building needs, or sudden shifts in enrollment, then what? Please think about the ramifications of such simplistic one-size-all thinking.

        • Jasen Boyd

          If that’s the case then the school needs to figure it out, maybe they increase their class sizes slightly to offset other cost, yes read that as reduce staff to meet their budget. There are a million options and each school would need to decide what works best for their school but if you want true education equality across the state then fund equally for each student.

  • Andrew Kirkaldy

    I understand that politics are important. Also important is a clear explanation of what was agreed upon. For example, this was in paragraph 10: “the tax penalty would be reduced from a dollar-for-dollar penalty to 25 cents on the dollar.” In the business in which I also work, this is known as burying the lede. This is huge news in some communities, if in fact it is the case. Please take some time and carefully explain the legislation that is being passed first, or at least up high, and then spend as many words as you want on the inside baseball. I read your work on Act 46 and consistently come away a bit uncertain on what has happened.

  • Jasen Boyd

    All this discussion and hard work, the house and the senate need to wake up!!!! The answer is not growth caps and penalties for exceeding them the answer is a set dollar amount per student and incentives for schools that spend less than the set dollar amount…

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