Two weeks ago, officials from both towns met to discuss conducting a study that would parallel a similar study to be conducted by the state over the summer. The state study will evaluate the “outcomes” of Vermont’s education financing system. According to the legislation 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.”
Dover and Wilmington officials expressed concern that the extent of economic and demographic impact on local towns could be lost in the study.
Dover is considering paying for their share of the study through a fund that was established at Town Meeting to “fight” Act 68. At a joint meeting this week, Wilmington expressed a desire to participate in the effort with Dover, but said they have no budget for any study. “We’re very interested in supporting the study in every way except financially,” said Wilmington Selectboard member Meg Streeter. When questioned as to what Wilmington could offer in lieu of funding, Streeter said the town would donate staff time, including the expertise of their town manager and economic development consultant, as well as research to the project.
“If Dover is funding the study, then it should be all about Dover,” said Dover School Board Chair Rich Werner. Werner also suggested funding the study in conjunction with the Vermont Coalition of Municipalities, a group known for its opposition to the statewide education tax.
Dover Selectboard member Vicki Capitani disagreed, suggesting that the study should include all of Windham County. “If we limit it to one squeaky town, we’re not going to get the attention of the Legislature,” she said.
“I think a more focused approach would be looked at with less authority,” said Dover Selectboard member Randy Terk. “If it’s one town, it’s easy to look at it and say ‘crybabies.’ If you look at a whole bunch of towns, then people can say ‘you’ve got something there.’”
Streeter noted that Windham County had suffered demographically over the last decade. “I think Windham County gained 29 new residents over the last 10 years,” she said. “If we could tie some of the data to acts 60 and 68, that would be useful information.”
“The population grew in the economic center of the state, and we lost it in the uneconomic part of the state,” agreed Rep. Ann Manwaring.
Dover First Constable Mary Lou Raymo, who is the town’s tax collector, suggested limiting the scope of the study to Windham Central Supervisory Union and Windham Southwest Supervisory Union.
Werner said local resident William “Buzzy” Buswell, the maker of the motion that raised Dover’s Act 68 fund, was “raising a stink” about using the money to fund the study. Buswell says the money was intended to be used to fund a lawsuit against the state.
Dover Selectboard Chair Linda Holland disagreed. “In my opinion, that fund wasn’t just for a lawsuit, and this would be applicable.”
“We’ve tried the lawsuit, and it doesn’t work,” added Raymo. Wilmington Selectboard member Susan Haughwout concurred. Manwaring said the data gathered during the study could be used in a lawsuit at a later date.
The group also discussed a draft of their proposed request for proposal. Manwaring suggested that the purpose of the study should be “to determine the economic impact of the education finance funding structure and the impact on the quality of education available to students in the area.”
The group’s original proposal called for an RFP that mirrored the state’s RFP, but Manwaring said that could suggest to the Legislature that the towns don’t “buy into” the state’s study. “I think we need to clearly differentiate it from the state RFP.”
Terk asked if the group should be meeting in executive session to discuss strategy, particularly if the information could be used in a future lawsuit. “Where do we draw the line with how public we are?” he asked.
Manwaring said she thought there was nothing the boards were doing that could be legally discussed in executive session at this time. She said it was in the towns’ best interest to be open in their process. “In everything we do, we’re better off being public about it. Once we craft this RFP I think we tell the state we’re doing it.”
“If this is going to be a serious study, I think it would be in our best interest to inform the state what we’re trying to do and act in a cooperative manner,” agreed Sibilia.
“Allow them to welcome the information,” said Terk. “The more people know this exists, the harder it is to ignore it.”
The group plans to craft an RFP for the Dover Selectboard to discuss and vote on at their next meeting on Tuesday, July 5, at 6 pm.