Education Finance - March 26, 2024

Chair Cummings explained on Tuesday afternoon that they are expecting several tax bills from the House but, as of yet, none of them address the big question of “the biggest problem we’ve got which is the massive increase in property taxes, which really is coming close to making Vermont unaffordable to most people.”

She continued that many Senators here have had school closings in their districts and said “I am starting to think maybe our system of very small schools has hit the financial wall this year… I don’t think the schools are on a spending spree… and we are trying to find a way out…” She introduced Heather Bouchey (Interim Secretary, Agency of Education) who was joined by Emily Simmons (General Counsel, Agency of Education).

Bouchey pointed out that in her tenure of 8-1/2 years there has been no legislation that “required school consolidation… If you were referring to Act 46, which I suspect you were, that was really about Governance consolidation and so I want to be really clear, I think there had potentially been a hope that the governance consolidation would lead to school consolidation, but it was in fact not a requirement of that law.”

NOTE: A fair number of schools did close under Act 46 and quite a few others could easily be closed by a consolidated district vote if it made sense.

Simmons argued that the Agency of Education has no specific programs that collect information about school building utilization for the same set of grades within the same school districts or even nearby districts.

There was a debate about what the ideal school size was. Simmons recalled the Act 46 of incentives for voluntary mergers recommended about 900 for “a Union School District.” Others remembered different numbers.

Cummings asked how well we have done moving towards that scale. Simmons admitted that the “merged results” do tend towards that number. Cummings asked they be provided these results and Simmons agreed to investigate that.

Cummings explains they are just beginning the work addressing this crises and the associated affordability issues. Bouchey added that they have testified about non-optimum schools size but also optimum classroom sizes in House Committees. We are “unique” in that most studies and literature about classroom size is interested in “reducing classroom sizes,” she stated, versus where we are now is well below what any study considers “small” and we are actually quite an outlier when it comes to how small our class sizes are.

She shared that they had “coined a term in Vermont “micro-classrooms.” Cummings responds without hesitation, “in every one of those classrooms we have a teacher.”

NOTE: CFV testified in front of this Committee earlier this year, pointing out that staffing reductions would be necessary for any real savings. Cummings comments here appear to acknowledge that.

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