Lawmakers from the education committees signed an omnibus education bill late last week after a dispute involving private school rules and school district mergers. Both chambers voted in favor of the consensus bill Friday.
The major sticking point for the Senate had to do with the State Board of Education’s draft rules on private schools; for House members, it was incentives for some school district mergers. In the end both House and Senate members were happy with the deal they struck on H.513.
“We closed the deal,” said Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, chair of House Ed. “It was a good deal for both sides, for school districts and kids.”
His counterpart, Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said he was delighted with the bill they agreed to Thursday. “The Act 46 flexibility was our No. 1 focus, and the House took a similar approach. It was all about adding flexibility for communities across the state.”
The conference committee just meshed together the two bills, adding instead of taking things out, according to Baruth.
From the start, Baruth outlined three must-haves when the conference committee met. The first was the Senate language around Act 46 flexibility for communities still trying to meet the law; the next was language creating a study committee to delve into the private school rules the state board has drafted; and the last was a solution to an employee fingerprinting snag that has held up universal pre-kindergarten in some places.
“I would have a hard time leaving the building without solving those problems,” he said.
The House members were reluctant to go along with some of the tax incentives in the Senate’s Act 46 legislation. They also didn’t feel the need to cut off the state board’s work on controversial draft rules affecting private schools that want to receive public funds.
The Senate created new regional education district merger options and extended deadlines for mergers if proposals are voted down or if another school district wants to join. The legislation provides school districts with tax incentives and transition grants.
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, said he didn’t understand why the House was against giving tax incentives to three school districts that choose to merge school boards. “Why would three be shut out?” he asked.
House Ed didn’t feel that three small communities coming together to create a unified school district is sustainable enough to meet the goals of Act 46 to provide equity and opportunity for students and savings for taxpayers, according to Sharpe.
The tax incentives were meant to pay for themselves by generating enough savings from combining school districts. With small communities, that might not be the case, some said.
On the other hand, the Senate believed the communities were struggling and sacrificing to merge their school boards and deserved tax breaks, according to Baruth.
The Senate felt strongly that in order to modernize the school system it was necessary to offer those incentives, so House members acceded in the end, Sharpe said.
But Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury, a House Education member who wasn’t one of the conferees, said he would vote against the conference committee’s report because he didn’t think it was fair to other school districts that have merged to make it easier to get tax breaks.
When it came to the Senate’s language to set up a study committee addressing private schools’ enrollment policies, the House put up a fight.
The State Board of Education has been embroiled in a controversy over draft rules that would require private schools to provide more public financial accountability and offer open enrollment for all students, including special education students, if the schools want to receive public tuition dollars.
When the two sides couldn’t resolve the issue, lawmakers got involved.
The Senate decided to set up a study committee, with both sides evenly represented, that would come up with compromise language the state board can use to move the rules process forward.
Baruth drew a line in the sand at the first meeting. “This is a serious issue for us,” he said. Baruth took issue with how the state board has handled the rulemaking process, which has had flaws and has met with anger at public meetings.
But House Education had a different take: Its members think the process can still work, according to Sharpe. He talked about the board’s rules for Act 46 alternative structures, which also caused an uproar at first but were allowed to go through the normal process, resulting in a more reasonable set of rules that is being accepted.
“The process also worked with regard to independent schools. They got their support yanked and had to rejigger,” he said. “They are now restarting the process to bring a more reasonable set of rules forward.”
Sharpe then walked right up to the line Baruth drew. “This study committee is not something we are good with. If they were to develop rules between now and January that are unacceptable to us we can take action and we can reverse what they have done then,” Sharpe said.
“Right now we are at an impasse on that issue,” said Baruth.
The House members were won over when the senators agreed to tone down the language in the Senate bill. “We were able to soften the harsh language in the Senate version of the bill considerably,” Sharpe said, adding that he looks forward to a “healthy conversation” on the issue.
Sharpe said the private schools are an important contribution to Vermont’s education system but they need to look into equity issues, especially around special education.
Ultimately, if lawmakers don’t like the rules, they can deal with the issues themselves. “The state board has been a relatively nonpolitical arbiter and overseer of Vermont’s education system. I hope that continues,” Sharpe said.
Less than 48 hours after they began, lawmakers had found agreement and signed their conference report.
The bill includes other provisions:
- It resolves how the Agency of Education and Agency of Human Services will work together to ensure fingerprint-supported background checks for employees working with pre-kindergarten students.
- It grants an exception for a town to leave its union school district without all other members of the district agreeing to that move. The legislation doesn’t name Vernon, but it is clearly a one-town, one-time-only provision that is revoked after the town holds its vote.
- The House Education Committee changed the submission date for alternative structures from Nov. 30 to six months after the rules are finalized or Jan. 31, 2018, whichever is sooner.
- It calls for a weighting study to determine the best way to make sure low-income students and rural students are getting the funding needed.
- The state board cannot promulgate “alternative structure” rules that are more stringent than the law.
- The bill also puts in writing the process by which the secretary of education will develop the statewide plan for districts that haven’t yet merged. Alternative plans can be submitted by school districts or a group of school districts after Oct. 1, and the state board can approve an alternative proposal anytime on or before Nov. 30. The secretary will engage in conversations with communities about their proposals; they can amend or change their plans during the back and forth and can testify before the state board.
- It allows local school districts that end up merging based on the statewide plan to meet and draft articles of agreement for their new school districts. They will have three months to draft and approve the articles.
- It hastens the date when the state board has to list what school districts it considers geographically isolated and thus not required to comply with Act 46. The bill gives the board and Education Agency until Sept. 30 to publish a list and the reasoning behind it. The deadline had been July 1, 2018.
- It allows Lemington to merge into the NEK Choice School District at a different tax rate so it isn’t locked into an artificially high rate.
- The bill will help smooth out elections and appointments for vacancies on a new unified union school board.
- A stipulation says districts that become part of a modified unified union school district won’t reap the tax benefits of unifying if they don’t merge for all grades. The provision applies to merged districts that began operation after July 1, 2015.
- It protects student journalists’ and school media advisers’ freedom of expression.