BENNINGTON >> The House Education Committee voted on Tuesday to sponsor a bill that would raise the per pupil spending growth caps imposed on local districts by Act 46 by 0.9 percent, which should ensure that no boards in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union are penalized.
However, late on Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee passed a similar bill which would eliminate the caps entirely. Both bills will face opposition, but Bennington senator and education committee member Brian Campion said that repealing the caps is the right thing to do. "Over the last several days," he said, "it became more clear to me that we were doing harm to kids." He said that Act 46 includes many incentives to cut costs, but with several unfunded mandates coming down from the state, such as Dual Enrollment and Early Childhood Education for three- and four-year-olds, it isn't fair to ask schools to keep their spending level while paying for those programs. "Schools have to respond to what we pass," he said, "and those programs cost money, so let's not have them do the right thing, then ask them to cut."
The caps, as they have become commonly referred, set a limit, the exact percentage of which varies based on the size of the school, on growth of per pupil spending between this year and next. If a school district surpasses their limit, they are taxed double for every dollar they go over. Several groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have challenged this aspect of the law, on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.
Alice Miller, representative from Shaftsbury and member of the House Education Committee, said that no one on her committee had been in favor of repealing or delaying the implementation of the caps. "We know we have to reduce spending," she said, "because we've lost 28,000 students, and the expectation is that we're going to lose a few thousand more." She said she has spoken to many taxpayers across the state who have practically begged the legislature for tax relief, which Act 46 is intended to provide. She said committee chairman David Sharpe came up with the idea to "soften the blow" with a 0.9 percent increase to the caps.
Campion, on the other hand, argued that very few school budgets are voted down throughout the state every year, and that we should trust in the voters. He said if the issue being discussed was healthcare for children, "we would not be curbing what physicians could do, and its ridiculous that we're trying to curb what teachers can do."
"I really think we got it wrong," he said, "and we're hoping we're moving in the direction of listening to people and making this right."
The Manchester Elementary Middle School Board will meet this week to continue discussing ways to reduce their budget to mitigate the impact of a large budget increase, largely driven by factors outside of their control, such as special education costs, increased tuition to Burr and Burton Academy, and increases in teacher salaries and benefits. The board is also seeing a continuous decrease in students, which, because both the tax rates and spending growth caps are calculated on a per student basis, increases their tax rate even further. Superintendent Daniel French said that the board would need to cut $400,000 to get under those penalties, which could cause the tax rate to increase by 26 cents per $100 in appraised property value, or 20 percent. Among the programs the board discussed cutting were the school's Spanish program, one of two guidance counselors, one of two gym teachers, the school's music teacher, and the school's entire Pre-K program, among other things. Parents, students, and staff came to an emotional meeting on Jan. 5 to implore the board to keep these positions.
SVSU Chief Financial Officer Rick Pembroke said that the 0.9 percent increase would likely be enough to prevent any SVSU districts from seeing tax penalties. If the caps remain unchanged, he said, Shaftsbury and North Bennington would be slightly over, although he predicted that Shaftsbury, when finalized, would be able to get under the limit. Bennington and Woodford had both been over their growth limits earlier in the budgeting period, but had managed to make small cuts to get under them. "Any relief is good relief," he said.
"I think repeal would be a horrible message to send," said Kurt Wright, a Republican from Chittenden County and member of the House Education Committee, in an interview with Vermont Digger, "I think this is the best way forward for now, providing some relief, some help while staving off any attempt to repeal."
The new House bill, dubbed H.556, will next go before the House Ways and Means Committee later this week, and should see a vote on the House floor some time within the next few weeks. The Senate bill should follow a similar procedure. Both Miller and Campion said they were cognizant of the need to move quickly, so that school boards can have clarity when finalizing their budgets this month. "We all want to give some direction to our schools, so that they can plan their budgets," said Campion.