Realistic numbers

This week the Vermont House gave preliminary approval to H.911 which fundamentally changes how Vermonters pay for education.

In theory, the bill will lower Vermonter’s property tax payments by some 30 percent. The bill creates a new income tax to add $60 million to the education fund. It creates an exemption for people whose adjusted gross income is under $47,000, holding them harmless.

The bill also provides property tax relief on the first $400,000 of value for primary residents and changes the current homestead education property tax rate by providing each school district with a base per student payment. That base per pupil payment is the amount of per pupil spending that can be supported by fixed Education Fund revenues.

Districts that choose to spend above the base amount will pay an additional homestead tax rate equalized across that district. There’s the rub.

The base per pupil payment that is under consideration for the coming year is $11,900. A copy of the bill released Monday notes that the $11,900 figure represents 92 percent of what base spending would normally be. The average per pupil spending in Vermont in fiscal year 2017 was $15,368. Locally, that figure rises to $16,790 in 2018 and $17,100 in 2019.

There are good parts of this bill. It allocates more funding from the sales tax to the Education Fund as well as additional funding from the rooms and meals tax plus taxes on alcoholic beverages. It carves out exemptions for people below a certain income level.

But, if, in a district like ours, where school board members and administrators aggressively work to contain costs and that yields us a 2.5 percent increase and a per pupil cost of $17,100, there’s going to be a shortfall. We won’t be alone in our predicament in Vermont when this happens.

How that shortfall gets backfilled is critical and unless the state uses realistic numbers in calculating its base per pupil payment, this new method of funding will provide no real property tax relief.

Any effort to set a base per pupil payment that is so far below the state average is going to set up school districts and voters for failure.

– LAL