But it was a member of the public who kicked off the discussion, with a plea for change.
“It seems to me this education funding is the stupidest thing we’ve ever had,” said Bill Adams.
“Fifty years ago when we would appropriate money to run the school system it would stay in this town,” Adams said. “Now it goes wheely wheely around Montpelier and they grab at it and send us a fraction of it. Every year we have to cough up more and more money for the poor towns up north, and we’re sick of it. Fifty years ago I would leave Town Meeting knowing, to the penny, what it would cost me for what we voted in. Now there are no two people who could figure my tax bill and come up with the same number. Why don’t we do something about it?”
Windham County Senator Becca Balint, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, said she identified with Adams’ frustration, and said the system’s lack of transparency was a factor in the Legislature’s inertia. “It is difficult to understand, and when you don’t understand it there’s no transparency,” she said. “It feels insane. And it’s difficult to get a critical mass in the Senate education and finance committees to get anything through. You have to get those two groups working together to get anything through. We had a meeting at which we asked at what point do we say it’s not working? If we can’t explain it, it’s a problem. But we have a crazy system where we run every two years, and people say ‘Why would I stick my neck out?’”
Whitingham School Board member Seth Boyd, who also served as Twin Valley School Board chair for several years, gave legislators an overview of Wilmington and Whitingham’s efforts to consolidate their schools, noting that the two towns created Twin Valley before Act 46 mandated school district mergers. He told legislators that the first “collaboration,” as it was originally called, occurred in 2004 after decades of conversations between Deerfield Valley towns. The initial agreement created a combined high school in Wilmington and a combined middle school in Whitingham.
“That was very successful for us,” Boyd said. “But after a few years we realized we weren’t as efficient as we thought we could be, so we worked to bring the elementary kids together in one building in Wilmington, and the middle and high school kids together in one building in Whitingham. That was a very emotional process, especially for Wilmington.”
Boyd said the two towns have already done what is now mandated under Act 46, and have taken advantage of efficiencies from combining classrooms and eliminating a building, but are still facing significant challenges under the state’s funding system.
“We were able to absorb a $560,000 bond payment without a budget increase, then we were able to reduce the budget by another $300,000,” Boyd said. “Our education spending has gone down by more than $800,000. It’s a success story, and it may sound like we’re doing all the right things, but guess what? It doesn’t affect our tax rate. Last year in Whitingham, after cutting the budget by $300,000, the education tax rate went up by 30 cents, and it went up by 23 cents in Wilmington.”
Boyd said board members find it frustrating when the governor and other government officials tell them to cut budgets to reduce taxes.
“Funding hinged on per-pupil funding does not work for rural schools in Vermont,” Boyd said. “We cannot sustain education with the funding formula we’re being dealt.”
Boyd asked legislators for their support in finding a better way to fund schools. “We’re not crying wolf, we’re making this noise because we need your help,” he said. “Act 46 is asking other towns to do this, and my prediction is that there are going to be a lot of towns in the same situation we are. I know changing the law is a difficult challenge, and it’s not going to happen in the next couple of months, but Vermonters can’t afford to be Vermonters here any more.”
Responding to a question from Balint, Boyd said Act 68’s excess spending penalty was one of the biggest challenges for the district. “Last year, 40% of Whitingham’s tax rate was due to the penalty,” he said. “That’s a penalty for being a school of our size. Large schools are working with the economy of scale, and have money to provide all the programs they want. Small schools that still get the small schools grant also have a benefit. We’re in the middle, and with 450 students, we’re not a school that can close. And the impact of not having schools in these communities is horrendous. We’re the largest employer in the towns. We need the school, but what it’s costing us is not sustainable.”
Rep. Laura Sibilia said that one of the funding issues for Twin Valley was the loss of “phantom” students. “One of the things John (Rep. Gannon) and I worked on with (Bennington County) Sen. Dick Sears was the issue of phantom students and the small schools grant that Wilmington and Whitingham are not getting like other consolidated schools,” she said.
Sears noted that the legislation passed in the Senate, but didn’t make it through the House. “It would have provided relief for one year, but when the chair of the House Education Committee (Rep. David Sharpe) saw it he went bonkers, and the House didn’t pass it,” Sears said. “The House is a different ball game when it comes to protecting rural districts. It’s an uphill battle because it is dominated by Chittenden County representatives. The Senate is different, because most of us have some rural districts, even in Chittenden.”
Sears said most state education funding systems don’t last as long as the current funding system, which is still based on Act 60 of 1997. “It needs to change, and I’m surprised it hasn’t,” he said.
Bennington County Senator Brian Campion, a former member of the Senate Education Committee and a current member of the Senate Finance Committee, said that one of the challenges for change is that some of the original architects of Act 60 are still on the committees, and still support the legislation. But he said change is possible if the education and finance committees in both the Senate and House are willing to work together. “Looking at Senate Finance, I think it’s possible, but not in a year. It’s going to be a longer conversation, maybe over a summer with House and Senate chairs.”
Former Rep. Ann Manwaring said that, at one point during her tenure, she counted 130 unfunded education mandates. She suggested a short-term fix by placing a moratorium on unfunded mandates that put pressure on local budgets.
“Maybe we should do away with mandates altogether,” responded Windham County Senator Jeanette White. “Maybe we should have competencies districts must meet, and you meet them any way you want to. If you want to teach critical thinking with football, more power to you.”
Dover resident Randy Capitani, who served on his town’s Act 46 committee, said demographics are the crux of the state’s education funding problems. “It starts with schools having a funding mechanism designed 15 years ago based on a different demographic situation than we have now,” he said. “Seth (Boyd) is right, per-pupil distribution of money doesn’t work anymore, certainly not with rural schools. The Legislature has to come up with a new formula, not make a system from 15 years ago fit the box.”
Wilmington resident and business owner Meg Streeter, noting that Act 60 was brought about by a court case (Brigham) 21 years ago, asked if another court case might motivate legislators. “Because Whitingham is taking that route,” she said.
“That would force the Legislature to act,” agreed Sears.