This year Whitingham and Wilmington voters, faced with homestead tax rate increases of 35 cents in Whitingham and 19 cents in Wilmington, rejected the Twin Valley School budget. The budget, however, was lower than the previous year. And over the past 15 years, the budget has increased by only a small amount thanks to the two towns’ consolidation efforts. The rate increases, according to school officials, are attributable to a loss of students and therefore increased per-pupil spending, and changes in the common level of appraisal.
Representatives Laura Sibilia and John Gannon released a memo this week outlining community action, their ongoing and planned actions in the Legislature, and other legislative initiatives underway at the Statehouse. The memo reveals short-term strategies designed to provide tax relief to small schools struggling under the current funding formula as they seek consolidation under Act 46, as well as longer-term strategies.
Sibilia and Gannon have proposed H.183, a bill that would provide schools with relief from loss of the “hold harmless” provision of Act 68. Under the provision, which was phased out under Act 46, school districts were protected from a loss of equalized students greater than 3.5%. Under H.183, a school district suffering from the change in the hold harmless calculation would produce a plan to address the decline in enrollment and maintain high quality educational opportunities in their small school. Sibilia says it’s an opportunity for schools to explore and propose “out of the box” ideas and solutions. “It could require working with other districts, or aligning with other educational institutions to overcome the the challenge of being small,” she suggests.
If the only viable solutions are cutting programs and staff, Sibilia says people in Montpelier need to see that, as well. “If cutting programs is the only way to achieve the goal, I think we need to document that,” she says. “If there is no way to innovate, no way to do more in rural schools than is done now, it’s important to paint a picture. If a community says there’s no other way except cutting physical education, music, and sports, I think the state has been more and more concerned about inequities and it will be a challenge for the Agency of Education.”
But Sibilia and Gannon have also pledged to seek legislation that would restore benefits such as the small schools grant and the hold harmless provision if Twin Valley forms a unified union school district under Act 46. Other school districts that are currently forming consolidated districts under Act 46 will keep the benefits. Gannon and Sibilia say Twin Valley gave up those incentives “in their visionary pre-Act 46 merger.” That legislation, if signed into law, would make H.183 superfluous.
Sibilia and Gannon are also working with southern Vermont Senators Becca Balint, Jeanette White, Brian Campion, and Dick Sears, and have met with Gov. Phil Scott, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, and House Education Committee Chair Dave Sharpe. Sibilia says Gov. Scott and Speaker Johnson “listened very seriously.”
Noting she and Sharpe don’t always agree, Sibilia says he has been receptive to information on issues school districts are facing. “Rep. Sharpe is very engaged and always willing to listen,” Sibilia said. “My sense is that he is looking for solutions in places where things are hard. But the magic number in Monpelier is 76, the number of votes needed to pass legislation, and education is one of the areas in which there isn’t a predictable coalition or partisan divide.”
On the homefront, the Whitingham and Wilmington selectboards will meet in a joint session at the Whitingham Municipal Center in Jacksonville at 6 pm on Wednesday, March 22, to discuss potential litigation against the state for failing to its their mandate under the 1997 Brigham decision. At Whitingham’s Town Meeting, voters raised $100,000 to fund litigation.
Wilmington did not include an article for a similar fund, but board members have signaled they would consider joint funding of such an effort.
Gannon, who also serves on the Wilmington Selectboard and is an attorney, says he sees some constitutional issues that could be a basis for a suit. “I think there are some parts of the education funding system that are clearly unconstitutional,” he says. “One is the penalty.”
Under the current education funding formula, a district that spends more per pupil than the state-set threshold, must pay a dollar penalty to the state for every dollar they spend over the threshold. The penalty is intended to rein in spending, but some have pointed out the absurdity of punishing excess spending by adding to the cost. Both Wilmington and Whitingham would pay the penalty under the 2018 budget that was rejected on Town Meeting day.
Gannon warns that litigation is a long-term strategy, but he says the two towns should address the situation from several angles. “We need to consider every option open to us,” he says. “I think we need to come up with a good strategy for litigation, find a good attorney with a background in education financing or education law, and find allies across the state. A lot of towns are frustrated.”