Twin Valley sparks a resistance against the state

The residents of Whitingham and Wilmington have a great deal of pride in their local schools, as much for the community asset as for the educational value. So why, then, would the majority of voters in both towns reject the Twin Valley school budget for fiscal year 2018?

It's clear from some of the comments made at Town Meeting on Tuesday that many felt they had no alternative. The school tax rate was projected to increase 41 cents and 22 cents per $100 of assessed property in Whitingham and Wilmington, respectively, despite a whopping $750,000 cut from current spending levels. Many felt they were stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, and they put the blame squarely on the state's Act 60 education funding method that is based on 'equalized pupils' and common level of appraisal.

"This damn formula is a pain in the butt," said Bill Spirka, a Wilmington resident. "I think the state needs to understand that if we start taking away this stuff, it's not fair. We've consolidated students, buildings, schools and it's costing us. We're not gaining anything. We're losing fast and you're going to lose a lot more kids because people can't afford to live here."

A common complain of the 20-year-old funding law is that larger towns have been allowed to increase spending and expand their educational offerings, while smaller districts like Twin Valley are being put in the "penalty box," despite extraneous consolidation and cost-cutting efforts.

The main take-away from the Whitingham meeting in particular was that folks are fed up with this unsustainable trend, they're not going to take it anymore, and they're bringing their fight directly to the Vermont Legislature in the form of organized resistance and legal action if necessary.

The town's Select Board shot the first arrow across the bow with its pre-town meeting letter to residents, urging them to reject the 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."

Residents reiterated that message to the town's visiting legislatures - state Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham District, and state Reps. Laura Sibilia, I-Wilmington/Bennington, and John Gannon, D-Windham 6 and vice chairman of the Wilmington Select Board - on Tuesday. All three sympathized with the town's plight, assured them that legislation is in the works to help alleviate this problem, and encouraged everyone in the room to keep up the pressure on the rest of the Legislature. This includes key committees like the Senate Committee on Finance and the House Committee on Ways and Means, in addition to the respective education committees.

The residents of Whitingham promised to do much more than just write letters and make phone calls. They talked about getting organized and teaming up with other small towns facing the same educational funding problems. And to demonstrate just how serious they are about this fight, Whitingham residents on Tuesday voted in favor of an article that would add $100,000 to the town's litigation fund in the event Whitingham needs to "litigate with the State because of the inequality of the school tax."

Montpelier would do well to pay attention because we're certain that Whitingham isn't the only town with grievances against Act 60.

In the mean time, Twin Valley school officials are now tasked with trying to make additional cuts to the school budget without gutting classroom programs. It won't be easy, said Windham Southwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Chris Pratt, who issued a plea for help.

"Hopefully the public will show up to assist," he said. "As we've seen by the town meetings, these are issues both communities are concerned with, in regard to how education is funded through the state. Any cuts are going to affect schools in Wilmington and Whitingham. I think it would be good to have the public present with regard to cuts."


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