But more likely than not education funding and property taxes will be front and center throughout the session. Why? Well, statewide property taxes for education funding are projected to raise seven to nine cents, depending on current calculations and how much of the projected 2019 school budgets are passed. That’s a significant increase, and Gov. Phil Scott and most legislators say that kind of hike would be untenable to taxpayers around the state. They’re right.
How the state deals with the rise in property taxes remains to be seen. We’ve reported on many occasions about the drivers of property taxes. A few of them include incentives for Act 46 school district mergers, declining student populations, and growing fixed costs for schools. The reasons are complex and numerous. The solutions may be just as complicated.
At a meeting last month at Twin Valley Elementary School, local state legislators were invited by the school board to talk about the crushing weight of Vermont’s education funding system on the Twin Valley district. Those legislators, representatives Laura Siblia and John Gannon and senators Becca Balint, Dick Sears, Jeanette White, and Brian Campion, were sympathetic to the plights laid out by the Twin Valley board members. The reasons for Twin Valley’s plight are many, driven by declining student numbers and a statewide funding mechanism that doesn’t account for the current realities. For the most part, we feel that the local legislators understand the problems associated with local schools and statewide funding, and are committed to helping as best they can.
There were some in the audience at the meeting who lamented the loss of local school funding, one town, one tax, no statewide pooling of education taxes into a fund to be redistributed. Some people were talking about the way school budgets were created 50 years ago, and urged legislators to return to those types of funding mechanisms.
While it would be great to think there’s the potential to return to that simpler way of funding schools, of tax locally and spend locally, current reality makes that difficult, if not impossible.
In reality, simple went out the window a little more than two decades ago. It was not quite 21 years ago when the Brigham decision was handed down by the Vermont Supreme Court. That decision set the ground work for the Legislature to enact Act 60, which was an attempt to honor the court’s interpretation of the state constitution, which calls for equity in education and how it is funded. That interpretation, or at least the Legislature’s interpretation of the court’s interpretation, focused on money. Act 60 in 1997, and Act 68 in 2003, attempted to create a level playing field for education funding in Vermont.
But the realities of funding education in 1997 or 2003 were significantly different that what the state faces today. Act 60 and Act 68 did succeed in pumping more dollars into the education system, but failed to address the key factor that is driving current increases in school costs: changing demographics and declining enrollments. A return to the way schools were funded 50 years ago, or even 25 years ago, just isn’t going to happen.
For education funding to change, some basic principles must be accepted. First, the current system of basing school funding on per-pupil costs needs to be overhauled. As part of that, legislators must look at what the real cost drivers are in education and address them. The constantly changing demographics must be realistically addressed. Finally, the issue of equity must be applied to more than just money, but also student opportunity and quality of education.
We know the local legislators hear those things. What remains to be seen is whether or not the full Legislature is paying attention as well.