Local rep says finance bill is “bad, bad juju”
WARDSBORO - At the River Valleys Unified School District board’s meeting on Monday, April 2, board member Rep. Laura Sibilia provided a legislative update in which she cautioned that H. 911, an act relating to changes in Vermont’s personal income tax and education financing system, is the “ugliest thing facing” the district.
Sibilia said that the bill contains a “number of good income tax changes,” including changes to income tax for moderate-earning Social Security recipients. “And then it makes some changes to education finance,” said Sibilia, noting that there are several key pieces to the legislation as it relates to education financing.
“One is moving around the funds that are actually used for education, getting rid of the general fund transfer to the education fund,” said Sibilia. “There was another piece that looked at introducing an income tax element into the residential tax payers. Not the non-residential and business tax payers. What folks wanted to do was lower property taxes. So they were able to lower property taxes by increasing income taxes. And then there’s another mechanism in there for cost containment.”
Sibilia said the cost containment measure has been being worked on by Rep. Scott Beck for one and a half to two years. “And we are at the point now where I can’t talk to him about it because I get so mad,” said Sibilia. “It is an absolute disaster for rural districts. It doubles down on what I would say is the absolute mistaken notion that you can educate every student in the state of Vermont for the same dollars and that we should.”
Sibilia said that in an original proposal, if a district was spending more than the statewide average, the burden was on lower income residents. “The people that were going to pick up the cost for that were your lower income folks,” said Sibilia. “It was strange how it was working out. So I actually asked the chair of Ways and Means, ‘Am I reading this correctly that in what are likely to be rural districts it is our poorer people who are going to pay the penalties for trying to provide an equitable education for their students?’” The answer was “Yes.”
Sibilia said the mechanism has since been shifted. “You’re able to take the slope of this Beck mechanism and make it harsher or less harsh,” said Sibilia. “It got tampered down so it’s much more gentle now, so it doesn’t look as scary or mean, but it is still in there.”
The bill passed the House, with Sibilia voting against it. “It’s in the Senate now,” said Sibilia. “I’ve heard the Senate doesn’t want it, and that the governor has said he’ll veto it. We shall see. But this cost containment measure is bad, bad juju. No good for us, at all.”
Sibilia said H. 897, which passed and made changes to the special education system, is positive. “There is potential to see improvement of services and some potential cost saving,” said Sibilia. She noted that also included in that legislation was funding for “the infamous weighting study.”
During the last legislative session, Sibilia and Rep. John Gannon successfully championed a study of the state’s weighting system for equalized pupils. Proponents say the study would examine, among other things, whether a rural “weight” should be added to compensate for additional costs inherent in educating students in a rural area, and whether current weights, such as weighting for families under federal poverty guidelines, are adequate. The legislation passed, but the state agency of education refused to take up the study without additional funding.
“The weighting study is really the missing link in terms of being able to ensure equity and achieve cost savings,” said Sibilia.
In other board-related news, the River Valleys board has moved their next meeting from April 16 to Monday, April 23, at 6 pm at the Dover School. The Dover School Board, which was also scheduled to meet on April 16 at 6 pm, has canceled that meeting and will next meet on Monday, May 7, at 6 pm at Wardsboro Elementary School.