Local reps demand answers on state study
by Lauren Harkawik
Nov 16, 2017 | 2127 views | 0 0 comments | 66 66 recommendations | email to a friend | print
DEERFIELD VALLEY - Local legislators have threatened legal action in a letter to the secretary of education regarding a legally mandated and yet-to-commence study about weighting in education funding. The letter comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed by Whitingham seeking a declaration that Vermont’s education property tax and funding system is unconstitutional.

On Tuesday, state representatives Laura Sibilia (I-Dover), John Gannon (D-Wilmington) and Ben Jickling (I-Randolph) sent a letter to Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe seeking clarification on when a study regarding weighting in educational funding will happen and threatening legal action should it not occur.

The study was mandated through Act 49, which was signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott on May 23. The study is intended to analyze the factors used in determining the number of equalized pupils and average daily membership at a school. Through the weighting system, several criteria affect equalized per-pupil funding. Sibilia has been pushing for a rural weight to be included in those factors.

Act 49, section 35, stipulated that the study was to be completed by the agency of education and its findings were to be submitted to the House and Senate Committees on Education, the House Committee on Ways and Means, and the Senate Committee on Finance by December 15.

As the letter sent from Sibilia, Gannon, and Jickling references, it was recently reported in “Seven Days” that Holcombe said in an August 3 letter to the Vermont House and Senate Education Committee chairs that the agency of education does not expect to initiate or complete the mandated study until they have the capacity to do so and that the study would not unfold in the designated timeline.

In their letter, the representatives say, “We could spend some time here discussing the merits of conducting the study or the damage likely to be inflicted to rural schools again this year by cost containment measures … But the time for those and many other arguments and discussions is over. That time ended with the signing of Act 49, by Governor Scott on May 23, 2017 which mandates the study.”

The letter goes on to say, “Recent conversations with Vermont’s Legislative Council have confirmed that seeking an enforcement action through the courts is appropriate in the absence of some other adequate alternative for enforcement of Act 49, section 35.”

At the Dover School Board’s November 6 meeting, Sibilia, who is vice chair of the board, provided an update about the study.

“This year (the Legislature) passed a weighting study, and the secretary (of education) is not doing it,” said Sibilia.

She said that during the legislative session, whether the agency of education had the resources to carry out the study was a point of contention and no funds were allocated for the study.

In a letter to constituents sent on Tuesday evening, Sibilia said, “I and other current and former legislators have been fighting for years to commission a study of pupil counting, as we believe that the current system unfairly harms rural districts with small population densities, and we fought hard to have this study included in an act of the General Assembly.”

“Using the current system, rural schools and kids in those rural schools really get penalized,” Sibilia said at the November 6 school board meeting. “It should cost more, and you should be able to spend more, for a student in a rural district than in a more densely populated district.”

Dover School Board Chair Rich Werner said that on a recent trip to Montpelier to testify on behalf of Marlboro, he felt the mood at the state was that small schools cost too much money.

“It’s always going to be the bigs against the littles and the rural, and we’re always going to lose,” said Werner. “There’s always power in numbers and the bigger schools have a bigger say.”

To that end, Werner said he hopes members of the Dover School Board will offer their support to Whitingham in their lawsuit.

“There is a lawsuit that was filed on behalf of a Whitingham student and a resident and the town,” said Werner. “Even though (Dover is) doing fairly well, we’re a rural school and we’re in that same grouping. We should really pay attention to that and give any support we can give, not so much as a board but as people.”

Werner also suggested that the Dover School Board send a letter to the agency of education in support of the agency following through with the directive of the Legislature to complete a weighting study. Kerry McDonald-Cady said she would draft a letter to be reviewed at the board’s next meeting.
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