In the first gubernatorial matchup of the general election season, Republican Phil Scott and Democrat Sue Minter sparred over Act 46, the state's school district merger law. They also were at loggerheads over school choice, the education financing formula and how to make Vermont a more affordable place to live.
The 90-minute debate held at the Chandler Music Hall in Randolph was sponsored by Vermont's National Education Association, the state teachers' union, and was moderated by Peter Hirschfeld of Vermont Public Radio and Lola Duffort of the Rutland Herald.
Duffort asked Minter and Scott if they would change the 20-year-old school financing formula. Both talked about the challenge of funding public education in an era of declining student enrollments, especially in rural areas.
Scott said the state needs to lower education spending increases first. "We have to address the spending side," he said. "We have 20,000 less kids than we had 20 years ago, costing us $1.6 billion. From my standpoint, unless we are ready to address the spending side we should not do anything with the formula."
Minter blamed health care increases and declining enrollments for higher spending on public schools and said the state should wait for Act 46 governance changes to take effect before changing the education financing formula. Minter believes voluntary school district mergers will result in cost savings that reduce pressure on property taxes.
Act 46 has helped her community of Waterbury, she said.
"In order to address the very serious challenge of declining student enrollment, Waterbury moved from seven different budgets and seven different school boards for 1,800 students to one [board]," Minter said. "Our decision to unify will help protect taxpayers and be supportive of schools."
Minter said the state should make the law more flexible for communities that are having difficulty with district mergers. "I am a strong supporter of this discussion," Minter said. "For some communities like our own where we had seven boards and seven budgets, one system of governance made sense. But I know it is very different in each part of our state and the conversations are really challenging."
Scott wants to change Act 46 because it does not adequately accommodate independent schools. While the law "has started a conversation about how do we pay for and spend less money for education," Scott said it was "hurried" through the Legislature at the "last minute."
A school district merger plan was debated by lawmakers over two legislative seasons. A last-minute provision capping spending caused major problems as school boards began to work on fiscal 2017 budgets.
Scott said he would expand public school choice. "Act 46 was sold to many lawmakers as including school choice, to the surprise of many they found out that was not the case," Scott said. "I think competition is good. I believe that within reason parents should have a choice as to where they send their children. I would like to see some expansion of that."
Minter supports the existing system of school choice in Vermont. "I certainly am not looking to expand it," she said. "I would worry greatly that this would undermine the incredible strong schools who need our help."
Both candidates were asked whether they supported a proposed State Board of Education rule that would force private schools that receive state money (for tuitioned public school students) to accept students in all categories of special education.
Minter wants to know more about the impact the change would have on small independent schools. "But, I certainly think where we have public dollars we should have all access to all needs especially those with special needs," she said.
Scott would advise the state board to "walk gingerly," and he would look at the cost associated with the proposed special education rule.
Neither candidate had an interest in mandating a staff-to-student ratio for public schools. (Vermont has the lowest ratio in the nation.) Minter said district mergers will free up teachers to offer more courses in different school locations within a district.
Both candidates supported transgender friendly bathrooms in school buildings.
Minter also pitched her Vermont Promise plan, which would provide two years free tuition at Community College of Vermont or the Vermont Technical College. The program would train students for jobs that offer a livable wage and help businesses find qualified workers.
"It is a win for students, a win for businesses that need workers and for our community," she said. "I plan to pay for that with a bank franchise fee."
Throughout the debate Scott spoke to the need to make Vermont a more affordable place to live — especially for 25- to 45-year-olds.
Scott said good leadership could deliver progress for the state. "It is essential that we all tell the truth and don't over-promise and always follow through," he said.