Education Spending Joint Hearing - April, 4, 2024

Chairman Conlon introduced the topic of the day, which was to solicit ideas from legislators about how to address the education crisis.

Representative Sibilia – Led off the conversation with a number of thoughts but closed by saying “We need to stop buying down rates. This is exacerbating the problem and delaying needed conversations.” See written testimony.

NOTE: Yes, this is the most important thing we can do this year to stop the bleeding. Legislators are too eager to buy down local tax rates with new revenues, this undermines the only check on spending in the current system.

Representative Dickinson – outlined her experience at BFA St. Albans and ushered it from an Independent School, tied to City funding, and worked at it becoming a Union High School. She sees the integration of the system as working much better. She recommends adjusting our “tax discounting” so taxpayers have to be reconnected to the consequences (over 5 years or so) and their votes.

Representative Holcombe – Argued every system is perfectly designed to get the results it delivers. That is true of education in Vermont. If we don’t like the rising costs and diminished performance, we need to change our strategy– not just pour more money into it.

Representative Harrison – Admitted there were no easy big answers. He emphasized that CLAs can easily outstrip ability to pay. Killington, for example, saw a 29% increase after last year’s 18% increase. He urged transparency when voting for school budgets, not just a simple budget number that tells us nothing. He also suggested November budget vote cycles for better turn out and buy-in.

He also identified that salaries for some administrative positions are “brutal” and only consolidation can address economies of scale. He was open to state control of budgets, saying “we are not in control anyways.”

Representative Carpenter – Asked the Joint Committee “look for efficiencies and ways we can better use our human and fiscal resources.” She pointed to strengthening mental health care services through partnerships with designated agencies with wrap around supports for families in “flexible ways and draw down federal Medicaid money.” She believed this could decrease the burden on schools and “eliminate redundant service models that often compete for the same pool of workers.” See her written testimony.

Representative Mrowicki – Was frustrated that Short Term Rentals were adding to the Housing crisis and felt they should bear more of a burden than the standard non-homestead tax rate. He also recommended a longer CLA “look back” to smooth out real estate market swings. Finally, he also agreed with the Committee that they should find alternate funding sources for social services occurring in schools.

Representative Quimby – Taught history and math for 33 years at Barton Graded Schools. Consolidations tricky, she noted, when they did at their school district it did not end up being a cost saver. We are now reconsidering consolidations as we cannot even staff at present structure. 

Representative Brumsted –Received lots of citizen input. Champlain Valley School District just cut $5M from their budget, which hurts. She argued that Vermont has too many small school districts, even a single statewide one might be considered. Vermont’s education system is dominated by small schools and “history shows scale saves money.” 

NOTE: History in Vermont has not shown this. The two rounds of forced consolidations have yielded little savings. One might argue we didn’t go far enough, but I’m more inclined to thing we didn’t target the right areas – middle level administration.

Brumsted also argued that income sensitivity and subsidies for small districts is distorting the system and the decision making. Insulation from consequences leads to poor decisions. She also believed we need to reevaluate and measure success definitions. Transparency is necessary for all decisions and buy-in.

Representative Lipsky – Shared that in the current model, school boards determine their spending, voters approve and then the legislature is responsible for funding these decisions. Due to our “incentive structures and the political dynamics” that play out in each town, “spending does not always result in improved student outcomes.” See written testimony.

Representative Graning – Stated that they need every Vermonter to know we have heard them. We do use tax policy to affect behaviors, she noted. She pointed to independent schools as her central issue, saying that data on outcomes “seems to be incomplete” and that the number of students attending them (and the associated funds) have increased since 2020.

Representative Roberts – noted that “if we closed our high school, some of these kids would be an hour away from Brattleboro Union High School, and that includes going over Route 9 and Hogback in the winter – it can be a hard commute. And while some kids love BUHS, for some it’s not always a fit. For kids in Halifax who have a choice for high school, a lot are happy going to Franklin Tech over in Massachusetts, Northfield Mount Hermon, the Academy at Charlemont, all over in Massachusetts, as well as Grace Christian School in Bennington.”

Roberts wrapped up by coming back to the quality of education “Because again, in the eyes of some constituents, there’s not a loyalty to the public school system, either with sending kids there or keeping tax dollars there. I think we’d be talking less about cost if people were really happy with quality.” See written testimony.

Representative Hango – Stated that “with the current statewide formula remaining in place, those high spending districts that continue to spend because they can, will cause our property taxes to rise, even as our ability to provide services to students declines. It is imperative for all voters to understand how their spending across the state, in all districts, affects all taxpayers, and ultimately, all students.” See written testimony.

Representative McCoy – Channeled former Rep. Larry Cupoley and stated “One School District.” She suggested a cap on spending. Her supervisory union has “done all the good work of Act 60, Act 46, Act 173” and yet when they increase their budget by only 1.57% she has to tell her constituents their tax rates still increase double-digits. “We should not be punished because other schools have gone way beyond, 18-20% increases… the current formula is way too complex for any average citizen or many of us in this room to understand,” she argued.

Representative Lalley – Identified the new student weighting in Act 127 “coupled with desire for districts to retain the services they'd become accustomed to must be balanced against the loss of pandemic era funding and the true costs of local control” has led to “no investment in facilities, no accountability for outcomes for the kids in the districts and significant redundant administration. All in a context where the school population declines each year, particularly in rural VT.”

Her conclusion is that “as the rollout of equalized student adjustments proceeds it should be paired with strong incentives to rein in spending statewide.” See written testimony.

Representative Burrows – Questioned “what successful business model includes the requirement to annually deplete treasure from its base investment into a blind entity with zero accountability for use of funds, success, treatment of employees, quality of output or adherence to law.”

She also slammed second homeowners who resettle after retirement and “don’t care.” This skews the grand list upwards with housing market sales creating a higher CLA

Representative Arsenault – Stated that “over the years, I’ve been in multiple meetings where folks are blaming “Montpelier” for the unsustainable increase in taxes, or the bungled roll-out of e-finance and Act 173, the absolute mess of a switch to a new statewide assessment, the mandated change to proficiency-based education without the necessary supports– the list goes on and on.” He pointed out that “so many decisions, made in rooms like this one, are having such a significant effects on the people inside our schools and the volunteer school boards working to support them. Because of this perspective, I must borrow from the Hippocratic Oath and impress upon us all the intense need to first do no harm. Please do not think about making the important and necessary changes ahead without a clear understanding of who and what will be impacted. And please do not simply rely on past experience, or the Agency of Education, or tax models to predict that impact. Talk to the people who will feel the changes most immediately: our students, caregivers, teachers, administrators, support staff, school counselors, and our taxpayers.”

Representative Stebbins – Stressed an inventory of assets, including buildings, staffing AOE, and regional needs is required while we step back and evaluate how we reconstruct the system.

Representative Noyes – Offered a previous bill from 2018 that would have reduced the current supervisory unions by redrawing these all around each Career and Technical Education (CTE) center then add one for children in state custody. The new number would be 17+1 supervisory unions down from 51 currently. This idea drew a comment from Kornheiser who said “you were the only person today that mentioned CTEs.”

NOTE: This is very similar to an idea proposed by CFV in 2014.

Julia Richter (Fiscal Analyst, Joint Fiscal Office) reviewed a slide deck that provided a historical overview of the Education fund from FY2009-2025. The presentation showed how per-pupil costs have increased over time as a result of falling student counts without adjustments in expenditures.

It is worth noting that while inflation-adjusted tax rates are more stable than we might think, this doesn’t account for Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) adjustments that reflect market shifts. These can drive local tax rates much higher.

Legislative Counsel joined the Joint Committee to review the history of the ballot language presented to voters and the excess spending penalty. See presentation.

Representative Austin wondered if the results of suspending the excess spending influenced spending decisions and/or property tax rates.

NOTE: No one knew how to answer this question, but the answer is yes. It’s unclear how much because the excess spending penalty was suspended at the same time Act 127 was implemented so both factors are at play.

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