Whitingham and the Twin Valley schools have become a dark example of what might happen around the state as school districts merge under Act 46. Wilmington and Whitingham began their merger process more than a decade ago, and have gone through the processes Act 46 is asking others to do now. Unfortunately for Whitingham and its taxpayers and students, the funding mechanisms and penalties haven’t been adjusted to fully account for the massive challenges schools face, with declining enrollment, unfunded mandates, and taxpayers unwilling to accept steep increases in their bills.
The lawsuit offers a chance to reset the funding of schools in Vermont. We certainly hope so. We’ve been saying for a number of years that Whitingham and its taxpayers, and in fact most small schools across the state, are being penalized for things outside of their control. Now the lawsuit says essentially that, and a lot more, including that students at Twin Valley are not being offered a “substantially equal education” and the tax collecting and funding mechanisms the state uses are inherently unconstitutional.
The lawsuits says in part that funding an education based on the number of equalized pupils rather than the actual needs of the school to provide a “substantially equal education” makes the town’s actions unconstitutional. That becomes one of the pillars of the argument, and one that should be compelling. We only hope it will it gain traction in the courts or when the Legislature begins its 2018 session in January.
The taxation argument says someone shouldn’t pay significantly more based on the “happenstance” of where they live. It’s not a new argument, it’s essentially the same argument that was used in the 1997 Brigham suit that brought about statewide education funding, through Act 60.
All of this says again that Vermont needs a new reality in education funding, something that takes into account the distinct differences between large and small school districts and acknowledges the reality of changing demographics and declining enrollments.
Even with Act 46 mergers, the changes in the state’s demographics toward an older population will continue to reduce the overall number of students. There will continue to be winners and losers, or perhaps successes and failures is a more apt description, as long as the current funding formulas continue.
Whitingham is being punished for doing years ago what Act 46 is requiring the rest of the state to do now, combine with neighboring schools to find savings and economies of scale. The current situation stands as a precursor of where many other districts in the state may be a decade further down the road.
It is also interesting to note that a mandated study by the Agency of Education to look at how school funding formulas are determined is being stonewalled. According to education secretary Rebecca Holcombe, the AOE doesn’t have the staff or resources to undertake the study. Meanwhile, Whitingham taxpayers are saddled with excess spending penalties and its students are suffering from a lack of their own educational resources.
We sincerely hope that legislators take a long hard look at the lawsuit and begin ripping up the current measures of school spending and devising new ways to fund schools. Members of the Senate Education Committee said as much was needed at a January hearing in Bellows Falls.
It’s long past time to scrap the per-pupil spending model. We’ve said that time and time again. Now it’s time for the courts or the Legislature to say so as well.