The community continued to voice questions, critiques and praises regarding Act 46 at the fourth and final public forum hosted by the Washington West Supervisory Union’s (WWSU) Act 46 study committee on May 23 at the Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield.
The law aims to consolidate public school governance and budgets by 2019 at the latest, with claims to create financial savings, equity and quality in public education.
On June 7, Valley residents will vote on an accelerated version of the law, which would bring consolidation beginning in 2017, along with tax benefits and other financial incentives.
Although voters can only decide on whether the law takes effect sooner rather than later, community members at the forum offered critical commentary about the underlying political and economic structure that created the law. Study committee members did not disagree.
Acts 60 and 68, passed in 1997 and 2003, respectively, comprise an overall effort by the state to create “substantially equal educational opportunities” and balance educational costs across school districts.
One feature of Act 68 was the creation of the homestead tax rate for property owners. This rate is determined first by dividing the amount of money that a district seeks to spend on education by the number of students in that district. This “per pupil” cost is compared to a standard set by the state. The homestead tax rate is increased if a district chooses to spend beyond the state’s standard.
SIZE AND COST
A community member asked the study committee, “How is it possible that we can’t afford ourselves [in educational funding] when we pay some of the highest property taxes in the state?”
Fayston School Board member Doug Mosle said that with Acts 60 and 68, about two-thirds of the education taxes paid by WWSU districts are not returned to public schools in The Valley. “It’s really unfair,” he said.
Scheffert Nease and other members of the study committee said that statewide education costs have increased due to population decline. In other words, small class sizes are not economical. Tax rates are then increased to cover the costs.
“There’s no question that bigger class size is the agenda,” said study committee chair and Moretown School Board member Gabe Gilman.
A parent in the audience challenged this point by explaining that her child thrived in an elementary class size of eight – an experience that was “very special,” she said.
But Scheffert Nease asked, “Would you have the same opinion if your child couldn’t have art or couldn’t have music?” Without the financial protection of Act 46, she added, “those things are going to get cut.”
Scheffert Nease said that the law would most likely not change the statewide decline of students, but that it would buy time to figure it all out. “This is the one vehicle we have. I don’t see anything else coming down the pipeline.”
Study committee member and Warren School Board representative Alycia Biondo said, “If you don’t like how it’s going now, you’re going to hate it [if districts do not vote to merge quickly].”
Tax incentives afforded to those districts who do vote to merge quickly will be paid for by those towns that resist, she explained. “It’s not magical money that’s created. It just gets shifted.”
State Representative Adam Greshin said, “It’s impossible to have funding reforms without having governance reform. ... I think this [Act 46] is a start.”
OUT OF THE BOX?
One community member asked about the option of transitioning public schools to a status known as independent, which may affect a school differently under Act 46.
Act 46 study committee and Fayston School Board member Jill Ellis said that some independent schools in Vermont have had issues with oversight and the management of funds. The questioner responded that these issues are found with public schools as well: “We need to think creatively to solve this problem.”
“I just think we can do something better than what Montpelier has offered us. ... It concerns me that we just sort of accept what’s being imposed on us,” he said.
With independent structures, Ellis said, “I don’t know that I would want to go quite that out of the box.”