Early April Education Update

Below are rough notes highlighting what happened in Education last week (April 2-6).

School Lead Testing (S.40)
The Caucus also discussed S.40 (school testing for lead poisoning). It's clear that this bill is a big priority for the Caucus. It was stated that there is no safe level of lead. The bill was worked on by the Education Committee this week. The Caucus also discussed decriminalizing buprenorphine. This would allow people who are addicted to opioids to begin a sort of self-treatment before they enter a more formal treatment setting.

It is notable that it appears that the House and Senate education committees are at odds over S.40 (lead testing in schools). The Senate is frustrated that the House has moved from a 50/50 split between the state and local districts on the cost of lead remediation to a 70/30. The House is seriously concerned with the fact that the Senate may have grossly underestimated the actual cost of the programs. Representative Cupoli stated that there are simply too many variables to be sure that the cost for remediation won't severely impact local districts.

Miscellaneous Education Bill (H.521)
On Wednesday the Committee did a walk-through of H.521 (miscellaneous Ed bill) as passed by the House. Gabriell Lina with Patti Komline presented an idea from Indiana in the area of consumer protection and debt. It would mandate that all higher education institutions issue letters that outline projected debt load, interest payments, etc. There was some discussion of extending this to VSAC also, but not a lot of traction. Baruth asked Legislative Council to review the documents from Lina and draft some language around the concept.

Emily Byrne (Chief Financial Officer, Agency of Education) and Emily Simmons (General Council, Agency of Education) testified on technical changes relating to Act 173 funding (special education funding) for H.521. This was mostly an overview of how the new formulas for 2020 and 2025 are supposed to function. Read more...

Secretary French is still contemplating his position regarding the one-year implementation delay. He told the Advisory Committee a week ago that he would take two weeks to decide. Baruth acknowledged that he could live with that but wants to make sure there would not be any more waiting for the Secretary’s opinion. He accepted that this was not necessarily a change in the overall timeline in the Act, which is a 5-year timeline.

The Committee took up H.521 again on Thursday. Meagan Roy (Chair, Census-Based Funding Advisory Group) testified that the Advisory Group feels that there is not enough clarity around federal special education requirements. They are particularly concerned that local districts are not meeting federal maintenance of effort requirements when it comes to special education. Roy also felt that the timeline for moving to a census-based special education model may be too aggressive, she would like to see the timeline for implementation of census-based funding pushed back a year.

Nicole Mace (Executive Director, Vermont School Boards Association) voiced similar concerns. Mace stated that the VSBA supports Act 173 and feels very strongly that it will provide opportunities for local districts. However, the changes in Act 173 funding will take time to implement correctly. In addition, she voiced concern that she did not feel that AOE was providing the proper level of guidance to local districts on this issue. She was particularly concerned that AOE was not staffing positions properly.

Baruth expressed frustration with the fact that AOE seems either unwilling or unable to provide adequate staffing to assist these local districts. He noted that failure was not an option and wanted AOE to come back and provided testimony as to these staffing shortfalls.

Forced Merger Deadline Extension (H.39)
On H.39 Conference Committee: Baruth announced Wednesday that the House Education Committee would not concur with Senate version and was requesting a Committee of Conference. Committee members will be:
• Representative Peter Conlon
• Representative Lawrence Cupoli
• Representative Dylan Giambatista
• Senator Philip Baruth
• Senator Andrew Perchlik
• Senator Corey Parent

Baruth commented that the House version is hard to maintain because the Senate version allows full coverage whereas the House version only "covers half the merger" towns.

The House Education Committee took up H.39 on Tuesday. Nicole Mace testified that the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA) does not support a delay in the Act 46 process. Her testimony mirrored that which was given in Senate Education last week. She noted that up until now the VSBA has refrained from taking a formal position on an Act 46 delay due to the divisions that it has caused in their membership. However, the VSBA board recently voted 12-6 to oppose any further delay. Mace stated that the VSBA supports the houses language if there is going to be a delay. She worries that voting to create transitional boards as a prerequisite for a delay could open the door to turning these elections into referendums on Act 46.

Jeff Francis (Executive Director, Vermont Superintendents Association) shared many of the same concerns that Mace had. He further stated that continued discussion of Act 46 implementation distracts school officials from focusing on other issues.

Brad James (Director of Finance, Agency of Education) presented to the Committee on small schools grants. Total grant dollars are increasing steadily but slowly while base amount increases. Ratios of these grants versus merger incentive recipients has shifted (as expected) as mergers are completed. Chairwoman Webb clarified that the merger support grants are in perpetuity unless the school closes. James confirmed AOE agrees with that assessment. Transition towards support grants will result in a stabilization of the total dollars.

Webb mentioned that Peacham and Bakersfield will benefit by H.39 but perhaps not in Senate version, so, "we will need that language for Conference." Brad James corrected his statement from yesterday where he suggested that certain schools would get the grants under the old language but he was wrong: because West Windsor, Elmore, Bakersfield and Berkshire likely but not under the new language. Brad asked to speak as a citizen, stating that he feels the law needs a fix, small schools that
"did the right thing" may be penalized while "some that didn't will benefit" from the small school grant dollars. Representing AOE again, he said there was a fix needed in small rural school formula that awards points and weighting. No specific proposal at this time.

Webb mentioned the "Weighting Study" coming in November. James recommended having a conversation with Secretary French before deciding to wait for the study or putting in place a temporary fix in the current bill. Read more...

Act 173 (2018 H.897) - Update from Vermont Independent Schools Association
Implementation of the special education financing and services provision plan in Act 173 should be delayed until the 2021-22 school year, according to recommendations made last week to the AOE and the legislature by the Census-Based Funding Advisory Group (CBFAG).

The 12-person group represents the principal stakeholders with an interest in Act 173 implementation, including special educators, representatives of LEAs and superintendents, independent schools and disability rights organizations. The group concluded the aggressive adoption timeline needed to accomplish implementation in the 2019-20 school year was not being fully met and that more attention was needed to planning and preparing training and supports, particularly for LEAs facing reductions of their special
education funding.

Education Secretary Dan French, present throughout the CBFAG meeting, said he will decide by late April whether to recommend a delay to the legislature. Legislative approval is required. Meanwhile, however, French said he intends to go ahead with the rulemaking needed to implement the Act 173 independent school special education requirements

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