Australian ballot voters in Wilmington and Whitingham, partner towns in Twin Valley School District, seemed to agree. Twin Valley’s proposed $9,445,523 budget was rejected in both towns, defeated in Wilmington 160-114, and in Whitingham 155-64. Although the budget was, as Wilmington School Board Chair Adam Grinold pointed out, lower than the two towns were spending in 2003, a loss of equalized pupils under the state’s formula coupled with changes in the common level of appraisal meant taxpayers in both towns were facing significant increases in their tax rates.
Revised numbers, based on new legislation altering the calculation for equalized pupils, sets Wilmington’s proposed tax rate increase at 19 cents – three cents lower than the increase announced at the beginning of the year. In Whitingham, the new legislation lowered the increase to 35 cents. Whitingham had previously faced a 41-cent increase.
Responding to a voter’s question, former legislator Ann Manwaring reflected on her view of how the state’s education funding formula fails schools like Twin Valley. Manwaring, who served on the House Education Committee, said the problem was the distribution of funds on a per-pupil basis. “Per-pupil spending is nothing more than a math equation,” she said. “It tells you nothing about operations in a school. If you take two towns with the same number of students, you cannot understand by their per-pupil spending what kind of educational opportunities the kids have.”
Manwaring noted that perspective in the Legislature is also a problem. While legislators may focus on per-pupil spending at small schools, larger schools may be the ones bloating the statewide budget, even with increases that sound modest. “This year Burlington had a 2.5% increase,” she said. “But the amount was $83 million and was something like 8 cents on the statewide property tax. I don’t believe it’s understood that that’s the problem.”
Manwaring said the part of the formula intended to bring fairness to raising tax dollars has worked. “A penny on the (education) tax rate raises the same amount in every town,” she said. But equity in the distribution of funds has not been met. “We really need a whole other way of thinking about it,” she said. “These are two really different issues, and we have not understood that. They certainly don’t understand that in the Legislature.”
Wilmington resident Bill Spirka said the tax increases needed to support even static funding for the school are not sustainable. But he didn’t recommend cutting the budget. He said the current situation under the state’s funding formula does not meet the standards set in the Brigham decision. “I think the state needs to realize if we start taking (cutting programs), it’s not fair, and that’s what Brigham was about – fair education for (Amanda Brigham). It’s no longer fair. Maybe legal action is proper here.”
Spirka asked Manwaring if a defeated budget would send a message to legislators in Montpelier. “Or are they going to say ‘I don’t care?’ Are we too far outnumbered by legislators from Burlington?”
Manwaring said legislators would only pay attention if an unusually high number of budgets failed to pass. But she suggested the towns may wish to consider legal action. “What the legal theory we could bring is, I don’t know.”
She also suggested that people contact legislators to tell them personally about the impact on their school or their finances. Joseph Cincotta volunteered to spearhead a campaign to communicate with legislators.
Cliff Duncan advocated an organized rebellion against the state. “Maybe we should vote the budget down and withhold the tax payment to the state,” he said. “What are they going to do? They’re either going to cut budgets or they’ll have to convince people in other towns that are suffering that it’s okay to give the state more money.”
Manwaring warned voters that, if they choose to take legal action, patience and cooperation would be needed. “It took two years for the Brigham case,” she said. “If you’re looking to take action, the first step might be a joint meeting between the school and selectboard to talk about the process. But if we start on this path, all of you have got to be in the game. Everyone in this room needs to be on board.”
Manwaring suggested that the goal should not be to overturn Brigham, but to bring fairness to the distribution system that local officials believe does not meet the standard of fairness under Brigham.