Editor’s note: This commentary is by Ann Manwaring, of Wilmington, a Democrat who served five terms in the Vermont House of Representatives.
When the voters of Wilmington and Whitingham voted to create the Twin Valley Joint Contract schools they had no inkling that 15 years later the budget that supports those schools at the town meetings just completed would require enormous property tax rate increases, even though total spending was decreased by over $200,000 over the prior year. Whitingham will see a tax rate increase of an estimated 34 cents and Wilmington taxpayers will have an increased tax rate estimated to be 22 cents. It is not a surprise that the budget was defeated in both towns.
In the first phase of our consolidation, our kids in middle and high school merged quickly and successfully, creating merged sports teams, common class work and all the other social and academic work important to successful schools. The adults took a little longer. Twice petitions sought to undo the joint schools, and twice the petitions were defeated in both towns by substantial margins. By that time, pride in the new school had emerged for students, parents, faculty, administrators and for the townspeople. Savings from the merger were invested in additional academic offerings. The Wild Cats, both girls and boys teams, took us to some state championships, and our Jr. Iron Chef teams became perennial winners. For the first few years, each town continued to operate its own elementary school, but three years ago the elementary schools were merged, and one of the three buildings was eliminated as a school. Our communities have adapted to and embraced our new merged schools.
It is unconscionable that Vermont continues to believe in an education financing structure that results in such onerous burdens on taxpayers in communities that have done the hard work AND which does not even direct resources toward equitable opportunities for Vermont’s children.
What we have not adapted to is the persistent grinding away at our ability to offer equitable opportunity for our children, the very promise of the Brigham decision.
We are communities that took it upon ourselves to consolidate our small schools, completing the work that is now being required of all communities by Act 46. Yes, we did expand opportunities for our kids in the early days, but the relentless effects of our education financing system have continued to erode much of the early gains in academic offerings.
Act 60, later amended by Act 68, has brought equity to taxpayers statewide, meaning that a penny on the tax rate raises the same amount in every town. But that equity does not achieve fairness when it results in such large increases in property tax rates to people in towns that have done the hard work to consolidate and reduced spending as every governor since Act 60 has asked. And, more importantly, much more importantly, it does not achieve equitable education opportunity for our students.
Clearly consolidation alone is not the solution. Isn’t it time for a deep dive into our education financing system, to take a hard look at why economy of scale is the driving force in the distribution of funds, why per pupil spending is the driving element when it is nothing more than a mathematical calculation and tells us nothing about opportunities available to children in schools with the same per pupil spending? It is unconscionable that Vermont continues to believe in an education financing structure that results in such onerous burdens on taxpayers in communities that have done the hard work AND which does not even direct resources toward equitable opportunities for Vermont’s children.