In 2014 as I went door to door in our Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate communities the concern that was utmost on the minds of residents was the property tax. With a diminishing school population and rising school costs, the education committee of the House worked for a year to address the problem. They came up with a solution. Spending thresholds on Vermont schools.
The results are now in and 127 schools are reasonably to extremely unhappy and balking at Act 46 while 150 other schools are more compliant but not thrilled. The argument goes in Montpelier that it's not fair that some districts have come into line and others are just whining. But whine they might. Act 46 is a law with spending cap thresholds that is upsetting the way education has structurally functioned in Vermont for decade upon decade. But, as we all know, no one ever takes action and things don't change unless things are shaken-up. Whether you are a member of a school board, a parent, a teachers, a member of the union, or simply a taxpayer — for the most part we prefer working within a broken system than changing the system in rudimentary ways because we are unsure of outcomes.
First, I was told there would be guarantees in place that school choice would continue. This is important because school choice works in Manchester and other places in Vermont. Unlike other states where choice can appear positive but largely works to disadvantage certain minority populations, That has not proven to be our case in Manchester. At least not yet. I think a good case can be made to repeal the thresholds in Manchester for the simple reason that "minority" students in our area fall into a category based upon socio- economic considerations. I would argue that they should receive the highest quality education possible. We have private schools that offer excellent educational opportunities. Our public schools must also be supported so that they can also continue to offer the very best education for children. In Bennington 4, I believe school choice needs to be protected. I was promised that it would be. Thus I could on that basis vote for Act 46. But each school needs to function on the highest level possible for our children.
The second reason I voted for Act 46 is that we are spending an unsustainable amount of money on education in general based upon diminishing school enrollment statewide. Looking at the preliminary figures over the course of the last decade something had to be done to change the systemic causes for the overruns. I believe Act 46 set in place mechanisms that support financial sustainability within the Vermont educational system.
In the fall of 2015 I asked the Chairman of the Education Committee, Representative David Sharpe to come to Arlington to address the concerns of those living in Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate. (Manchester had already had a similar meeting but I was away during that time.) At the meeting I called we met at the Arlington library and had a turnout of around 50 parents and interested persons. Six members of the House Committee on Education were in attendance. It was a good presentation by Rep. Sharpe. He and the other committee members had been traversing Vermont to take testimony from persons such as those who attended our local meeting. At the meeting, parents expressed worries about taxes, school choice and other concerns related to Act 46.
Months have passed. So, how will we save money if not through Caps? Should we go back to the original penalty threshold mechanism included in Act 68? What will that mean next year and the year after if we do that?
I do not have all the answers but I do believe we cannot continue to fund Act 46 from the Education Fund, which in turn, causes property taxes to increase. I join those who agree that cost shifts need to be moved to the General Fund and lessen the burden on property tax payers. Based upon an outpouring of voices for repeal from my constituents, mostly those from Manchester but also some from Arlington and Sunderland and Sandgate, I will vote to repeal the thresholds on Act 46. If the repeal votes fails, which it may, I will have to reevaluate my position and vote a position that I believe will cause the least harm to Bennington, District 4. I have also added my name to an amendment that favors the continuation of school choice.
Steven Berry is a state representative to the Legislature from the district which includes Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate.