At a special joint meeting Tuesday, Dover board members voted to approve a contract with KSE Partners, the Montpelier lobbying firm that worked with the two towns during the last legislative session. Members of the Dover/Wilmington Education Task Force said last year’s effort was successful for the two towns.
Last year the state released the Picus Report, commissioned by the Legislature, which found that there is equality in the way money is raised for education in Vermont. But a report by Northern Economics Consulting, commissioned by Dover and Wilmington, indicated that the system does not provide equal education for Vermont’s children. Meeting resistance to the report in the Legislature, the task force recommended hiring a lobbyist to promote the towns’ agenda.
Working with Rep. Ann Manwaring, of Wilmington, Rep. John Moran, of Wardsboro, and education task force members Laura Siblia and Phil Taylor, KSE was eventually able to shepherd a bill through the Legislature creating an “educational opportunities working group.”
Clare Buckley, of KSE, told board members that the legislation creating the group was passed at the last minute before the end of the session. “To get this one page of language enacted into law took from the first day of the session to the very last day of the session,” she said. “The powers that be think the existing system works absolutely fine. To get people to think about changing, or thinking about ways it’s not working is a real uphill struggle. That’s what we found trying to get this enacted.”
Buckley said the study offered them the leverage they needed to get Sibilia and Taylor in front of legislative committees to talk about how Act 68 affects students in towns like Dover and Wilmington. “You have to make it relevant to the whole state,” Buckley said, “including towns that Act 68 is working for, and those that it’s not.”
Buckley said KSE was proud of getting the Legislature to pass the language creating the education study group in just one year, and credited Manwaring for securing $30,000 in funding for the committee’s activities. The committee’s charge is to “review and evaluate” how education funding is allocated in Vermont and how “impediments to opportunity such as poverty and substance abuse may be mitigated.” The group is also charged with identifying the data the state needs to collect to evaluate the educational effectiveness of the funding system, and coming up with a system of collecting the data.
The study committee’s recommendations are due to the Legislature by December 15. “(The Picus Report) looked at what’s going into the education fund and came to the conclusion that everything going in is equalized,” Buckley said. “Now we have to look at what is coming out of the education fund. What are the unintended consequences?”
Buckley said that one of the goals they would focus on for the coming year would be to get the working group, and later the Legislature, to include the collection of specific data the two towns would like the state to evaluate in new legislation. She noted that the effort comes at a particularly good time. “The federal government just gave the state $5 million to create a database looking at certain (educational) outcomes. We want to make sure the things you want measured are included in that database.”
Wilmington School Board Chair Phil Taylor, who was appointed to the legislative working group, urged the boards to continue to support the lobbying effort, which he said has helped focus the message to one that resonates with a wider audience. “When we first came to the Legislature it was about us and how Act 68 is failing us,” he said. “You don’t get very far in the Legislature having that singleness of purpose. What has changed is that we are advocating for everyone. You stand on moral ground when you’re arguing for every child in the state.”
Taylor also told board members they were finding support for their concerns about education financing from an unexpected quarter. The University of Vermont’s Jeffords Center for Policy Research is also a part of the legislative working group. Taylor says that the committee members didn’t seem to put much stock in the concerns raised in the Northern Economics Consulting study until representatives of the Jeffords Center gave them some backing. “That was a critical threshold,” Taylor said. “We’ve been making that argument, but to make that argument in front of these academics and have them say ‘Yes, of course, this is a fundamental issue we’re aware of,’ was a real breakthrough.”
Manwaring also supported the lobbying effort, and said KSE had helped the towns to present a more universal message. “We’re starting to get more credibility when we go into a committee,” she said. “They used to say ‘Oh, here come the whiners, crying about their money,’ so we refocused on what’s coming out of the education fund. What do our kids have? What do your kids have? Is this equitable? We have to be careful how we go about this, and assemble as large and broad a coalition as possible so that it’s not ‘here comes Dover and Wilmington again.’”
Manwaring said the effort wouldn’t have gotten as far as it has without the efforts of KSE, singling out Buckley’s work for praise. Manwaring said that Buckley is able to do what she and Moran are not able to do. “John and I have a job that we’re paid to do,” she said. “When we’re up there we’re working in our committees, and we don’t have the opportunity to sit in another committee. We don’t have access to go into Senate committees. That’s the value of having a lobbyist. Clare was there every day.”
Moran agreed. “When there’s a discussion on something that affects us going on in the education committee, a nuance can happen, and before we know it, it’s all gone wrong,” he said, indicating that Buckley is able to react to those “nuances.” Moran said the discussion about how the state spends education funds has been a long time coming. “We’ve been talking about how we raise money for a long time,” he said. “The discussion about how it’s being spent is long overdue.”
Manwaring said an underlying issue in the discussion is that of the quality of education in Vermont. Although Vermont touts its education achievement, Manwaring suggested an objective look at education in the state isn’t quite as rosy. “In Vermont we talk about how good our education is, one of the top four or five states in the country. One of the things in the Northern Economics Consulting report is that, if you take demographics into account, we’re not much better than middle of the road. And even if we’re about average, the United States is 16th in the world. This is an absurd proposition and we have to stop patting ourselves on the back and understand that we have to produce kids that function in the world.”
Dover board members approved the contract with KSE, and agreed to fund up to $50,000, the total under the contract. But Dover board members asked Wilmington board members to pay some of the contract cost.
Wilmington board members acknowledged their obligation, but said they would have to discuss the matter at a future meeting before they could give Dover an answer on funding. “I don’t know how Wilmington would pay for this,” said Wilmington board member Diane Chapman. “This wasn’t budgeted, and now we have another bridge that needs to be repaired.”
“We didn’t budget anything, because at the time we were doing budgets, we didn’t know we were going to hire a lobbyist,” added board member Susan Haughwout. “But we do have an economic development grant-matching line item, and I can’t find any greater detriment to our economic development than our tax burden in the state of Vermont. I could make the argument that this is like matching a grant from another town to keep the cause moving forward.”
Board member Vicki Capitani said any amount Wilmington could contribute would be helpful to Dover. “As a taxpayer in both towns, even if Wilmington can come up with a small amount, you’re buying a stake. For us to go back to our voters and say we’re paying for everything … .”