State's education funding formula must be addressed

There has been a great deal of angst going into this year's legislative session and upcoming Town Meetings over Act 46, the education law that pressures school districts across the state to consolidate. The law was enacted to address ever-rising education taxes in Vermont, without sacrificing educational quality.

Consolidating administrative functions and sharing resources between smaller school would certainly seem to achieve that goal. But there is growing concern that towns are being forced to abandon their preferred education models, and, moreover, that the consolidations will not produce any significant savings.

"It's not working for us!" reads a letter to Whitingham residents from the Select Board.

Before Act 46 even came about, Whitingham and Wilmington led the way by having difficult conversations that brought about the Twin Valley school system. The arrangement even included the closing of a school as two elementary schools merged into one. And yet, residents of both towns are facing sizable tax increases this coming year, despite a proposed school budget that cuts spending by $750,000 from last year. An increase on the school tax rate of 41 cents per $100 of assessed property in Whitingham was attributed to the state education funding formulas. That means the owner of a $100,000 home in that town will see an increase of $410 in their taxes. The rate in Wilmington is expected to rise by 22 cents.

So, town officials in this sleepy little hamlet have thrown down the proverbial gauntlet regarding education funding in Vermont. They're encouraging Whitingham residents to reject the proposed school budget.

"Our recommendation is not to reflect poorly on the School Board and [Windham Southwest] Supervisory Union as we appreciate all the hard work they have done to present a reasonable budget," the letter said. "A 'no' vote would send a CLEAR MESSAGE to our legislators that we have had enough and are unable to financially support the projected increases. It is time for the state of Vermont to realize the excessive tax burden created by education funding as it currently exists."

Whitingham voters also will be asked to consider investing $100,000 in lawyers to fight the state on the issue of educational funding.

"As a result of the way per pupil spending is calculated, Whitingham school is in the 'penalty box,'" the Select Board wrote to residents. "In order to get out of the penalty box, through the convoluted education funding method that is based on 'equalized pupils' and common level of appraisal, the School Board would be forced to cut an additional $750,000 from the school budget! A cut of that magnitude would be devastating to our students."

School officials have said transportation, arts and other programming would need to be cut to avoid the penalty.

"It's about inequality of education, isn't it?" Whitingham Select Board member Karl Twitchell told the Reformer. "If we cut the budget to where we're out of the penalty box, we'll have no education."

If the budget is defeated at Town Meeting, Twitchell said the School Board would need to present the same budget or a different one within 30 days. If that one is voted down, then the budget would revert back to the one approved last year, he said. Either way, the budget will need to be finalized by June 30.

For Twitchell, the no-vote will at least send a message to lawmakers even if the budget is approved in the second round.

"By then, maybe they'll do something because they see we're taking a stand," he said.

The letter itself certainly has generated renewed discussion and awareness of Act 60, the 1997 law that created our current educational funding formula. Small towns like Whitingham have been arguing for years that the law penalizes small schools while actually giving economic incentives for large schools to spend more money.

"This has been the fatal flaw in the funding formula and is the one that has caused educational funding to skyrocket over the past 15 years," Ed Metcalfe, a Whitingham resident who served on the Twin Valley School Board for six years, wrote in a recent letter to the editor. "Act 60 falsely points to small schools with higher per pupil costs as being inefficient and lauded those with low student costs as being efficient. The law fails to take into account the fact that economies of scale are what make the large schools seem efficient and assumes that because small schools have higher fixed costs per student that they were not using their tax dollars well."

That flaw has not gone unnoticed by local legislators.

"Voters in the town have consistently worked to sustain and support quality educational opportunities for their students, while struggling to manage the dramatic rise in tax rates resulting from that 20-year-old change in our education finance mechanism," said state Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington.

Sibilia is working with state Rep. John Gannon, D-Windham 6, to change the laws that control education funding, but those efforts appear to be stalled.

"It's very frustrating for me," Gannon said. "I've been a co-sponsor for several bills for Act 46 and they're not making any progress in the House Education Committee."

Instead of voting down the proposed school budget, Gannon encourages residents in Whitingham - and all over the state - to contact their legislators regarding the flaws in education funding.

That's a sound strategy. As Gannon rightly points out, the more vocal people are on a particular issue, the more attention it will get. The Whitingham Select Board took the first step with its letter to residents; now it's up to residents to continue the fight by contacting their legislators — repeatedly, if necessary.


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