The Legislative Joint Fiscal Office has issued a request for proposal for an evaluation of the “outcomes” of Vermont’s education financing system. In their RFP, the JFO says the objectives of Act 60 were to reduce the disparity in per-pupil spending related to property wealth, reduce the disparity in academic achievement among Vermont students, and reduce the disparity in education tax burden among Vermont tax payers. According to the RFP, the study in intended to evaluate the extent to which the objectives have been achieved, whether demographic changes in Vermont have affected outcomes, and whether there have been unintended consequences of the education financing laws.
Under H.436, the bill authorizing the study, the evaluation will include a review of acts 60 and 68, a review of existing school finance data collected by the departments of education and taxes, and a review of education financing in other states. The legislation also calls for a comparison between communities in the state and other states based on equity, education quality, cost, funding sources, demographic issues, the extent to which spending is connected to community income wealth, and “economic impacts, if any, that the education funding system has had on state and local economies.”
“The language they chose, ‘if any,’ is disturbing,” observed Dover Economic Development Specialist Patrick Moreland. “It doesn’t leave one with a sense of confidence that the issue is going to be explored at the local level.”
Wilmington Selectboard member Meg Streeter noted that the phrase “if any” was only used in the sentence regarding economic impact, suggesting that the state doesn’t believe there has been any economic impact. “They aren’t going to look at what we want them to look at,” she said. “If we spent some money looking at Dover’s and Wilmington’s demographics, why would they look at that? Why don’t we get them to focus on getting them to focus on our parameters?”
Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce executive director and Dover School Board member Laura Sibilia asked if the group would like to take an active role in promoting the valley’s viewpoint on education financing. “Do folks feel like there’s value to Dover and/or Wilmington, other towns, doing additional research in conjunction with this study?”
Dover School Board Chair Richard Werner suggested the towns monitor the evaluation process. “I think there’s value in paying close attention to this, even if we have to hire someone to attend all the meetings in Montpelier and take copious notes.”
Werner also noted that “things are not the same here as they were 10 or 15 years ago. People don’t’ go out to dinner, buy locally – people aren’t painting their houses and taking care of their yards as much.”
Moreland questioned whether creating an independent study focusing on the Deerfield Valley would have any impact on either the statewide study or the legislative process. “It would be a big hit here, but not in Montpelier,” he said.
Sibilia said there appears to be a growing consensus among legislators and other officials that the economic impact of education financing hasn’t been considered. Sibilia said regional date provided by the state’s federal delegation suggested that “when things started to tank in Windham County correlates to when Act 60 was implemented.”
Manwaring said the “terrain” in Montpelier was beginning to change. “There are people resting on their laurels, believing that Act 60 is the best thing since Swiss cheese,” she said. “But when this started there were 20 sending towns. Now there are 75 or 80 towns, and growing. There is an infusion in the discussion of a wider variety of people.”
If the towns were to embark on their own study, said Dover Economic Development Committee member Tom Powell, they would need to hire an independent firm. “Otherwise, they can look at the report and say we’re just a bunch of crybabies down here.”
Twin Valley School Board member Phil Taylor said the towns must focus on “the root causes of the problem,” which he identified as the equality of education spending and the impact of the state funding system. He suggested that valley towns play different roles in illustrating the impact of Act 68. “Dover is not a great town to be the poster child for educational equality,” he said, referring to the school’s reputation for excellence. “Dover is the poster child for economic impact. Wilmington and Whitingham are the poster children for educational equality.”
Werner said he was concerned that the state’s study could get “hijacked” by other interests. “Past studies set out to do wonderful things, but they got hijacked,” he said.
“I think you have a point there,” said Manwaring. “To me, the most important thing is to make sure this doesn’t end up on a shelf – something has to happen.”
Sibilia asked Manwaring if she thought the study would be a tipping point for education funding reform. “Or will it say it’s working and we just need to consolidate (school districts)?”
Manwaring said it was the state’s first effort to consider the economic impact of the state’s education financing law. “People in receiving towns think it has been good for the Vermont economy,” she says. “I hope your group can put something believable on the table to be considered. Something with sufficient credentials behind it, something that they can’t look at and say ‘oh, those guys did it so it’s no good.’”
Dover Selectboard member Randy Terk suggested the towns put out their own RFP, seeking a firm to study and evaluate the same criteria listed in the state’s RFP. He also suggested submitting the RFP to the same firms that the state submitted their study to. “If we do something outside of (the state’s) study, they can ignore it,” he said. “We want to make sure the state’s consultant gets the information and includes it.”
“It would be great to see who the state hires and see if we could hire the same group,” said Rich Werner.
Dover has a $60,000 legal fund established by Town Meeting voters, known informally as “the Buzzy Fund,” after William “Buzzy” Buswell, the maker of the motion that established the fund.
At last week’s meeting, Buswell suggested using the money to mount a legal campaign against the state. “The state doesn’t care about Wilmington and Dover, it cares about putting a blessing on what it did 10, 12 years ago,” he said. “We have to fight fire with fire and get a consultant to show that the statewide property tax is unconstitutional. I think legal action is the best way to go.”
“But $60,000 isn’t going to win us a court case,” said Sibilia.
“Maybe we can hire a hitman,” joked Werner.
The group agreed to meet again in two weeks.