Vermont is due for a school finance overhaul, but the pandemic will delay it

Jennifer Botzojorns
Northeast Kingdom superintendent Jen Botzojorns says low wages make it nearly impossible to keep qualified teachers on staff, over 30 educators in her district don’t have the right degrees for the subject matter they teach — and her buildings are in dire shape. Photo by Bob LoCicero

It’s highly unlikely that the Legislature will overhaul the way Vermont’s public schools are financed this session, Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, said Wednesday, although short-term money could flow to schools sooner to take the pressure off.

Armed with the findings from a study commissioned by lawmakers, local school officials and community members in the state’s needier districts are pressuring legislators to reform Vermont’s preK-12 funding system. 

Vermont needs to enact those changes, Balint said, but with lawmakers working over Zoom and crises in the state’s pension system and state colleges afoot, there is neither the time nor the bandwidth to tackle the matter properly right now.

“I know from just my seven years in the Legislature that when we rush things, we make mistakes. And this is something we absolutely need to get right,” she said.

In Vermont, local residents decide on Town Meeting Day how much schools will spend, and the state foots the bill out of the Education Fund. To control costs, the state calculates local property taxes based on how much a district spends per-pupil, using a weighted formula that is supposed to account for the fact that certain types of students should cost more to teach.

But that weighted formula was not grounded in empirical evidence and does not capture the added cost of educating poor and rural students or English-language learners, researchers concluded in a study published a year ago.

Even in a non-pandemic year, those reforms would be a heavy lift. But, while many schools are clamoring for changes, quite a few could instead stand to lose ground.

The study's recommendations would put downward pressure on school tax rates in poor, very rural, or racially diverse districts. In principle, that would encourage those schools to spend more than they do now, although those communities could instead keep spending as-is and buy down tax rates. 

But the inverse would happen in more affluent communities, where upward pressure on tax rates could, in theory, substantially tamp down spending.

“There's no community, really, that’s saying, ‘Maybe our kids are getting too good a deal, you know we're over-resourced in our high school,’” Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, said Tuesday during a joint hearing of the Senate Education and Finances committees. “That is going to be the sticking point, I suspect.”

One bill, S.13, would assign the Agency of Education to come up with a plan to implement the study’s findings. But Education Secretary Dan French flatly told lawmakers on Tuesday that the agency has no capacity to do so. 

“The agency can’t do it,” French said. He also repeatedly noted the inherently political nature of the task ahead, and said the agency’s role should be limited to “technical support.”

Balint said she’s sympathetic.

“I think it's important for us as legislators to say, ‘You cannot get blood from a stone.’ It's not fair to ask them to do this in the midst of the pandemic,” she said.

The Senate leader said there will be a concerted effort to direct more short-term aid to school districts that would benefit from retooling the weighted system while the Legislature takes more time. And she said an influx of cash from Congress in the next stimulus package could finance that effort.

“I fully expect that there's going to be money in this federal package. That sounds like it's going to be coming to us within the next couple of weeks,” she said.

S.13 almost certainly won’t make crossover, the midsession legislative deadline for bills to pass from the House to the Senate, or vice versa, Balint said, but a legislative task force could be assigned to come up with an implementation plan.

A coalition of school districts is pressing lawmakers to act now, saying they can ill-afford to wait any longer. 

From Winooski, the only majority-minority district in the state, school board member Alex Yin told senators on Tuesday that his district had to choose between year-round busing or a facilities bond. 

In the Northeast Kingdom, superintendent Jen Botzojorns said low wages make it nearly impossible to keep qualified teachers on staff, and over 30 educators in her district are working with provisional licenses because they don’t have the right degrees for the subject matter they teach. 

And her buildings, she said, are in dire shape. “In three of our schools, we had no ventilation. We have a pandemic — no ventilation,” Botzojorns said during a press conference earlier this month. “We have sewage ejector pumps in classrooms so the gray water doesn’t back up.” 

Some critics think lawmakers are at some level overcomplicating the matter and are kicking the can down the road. Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, who has long championed such reforms, said Wednesday they are “not rocket science,” and has proposed her own implementation plan in legislation that would phase in the study’s recommendations over several years.

“I think there's growing acknowledgement that something must be done,” she said, although she acknowledged the pandemic is “a pretty big impediment” to immediate action. The current funding system has been in place for 20 years, she said, and a “whole generation has been harmed.”

“If we were not in the middle of a pandemic, you know, I would not be willing to concede a single moment more. That's not one single moment more of this,” she said.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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