School Funding and Consolidation
Vermont has a complicated state-wide system for education funding, created in the aftermath of a 1997 court ruling in Brigham vs. State of Vermont, which had ruled the previous funding system unconstitutional (because varying property values led to varying levels of education funding). The current funding system has done its job: the 2012 Picus report, prepared for the state legislature, found that district spending is relatively equal and unrelated to median incomes in towns and cities. However, the current funding system is far from transparent, as state-controlled processes to equalize the education taxes connected to property values make it difficult for voters who have to approve school budgets before the legislature has made all its decisions which will affect the tax rate. Local budgets are not the only force driving the education tax rates, and school tax rates have generally been on the rise for the past decade in Vermont. Voters are frustrated.
The legislature’s response to concerns about the funding mechanisms has been to encourage efficiencies through consolidation of school districts. Vermont schools have some of the highest rates of spending in the US as well as some of the lowest staff/student ratios in the US. This is partly due to geography: with many small towns, we have many very small schools. In the current legislative session, the Vermont House Committee on Education has been hard at work on H.361, which would, over time, set minimum sizes for school districts, so that no district would have fewer than 1100 students. Currently, small schools receive subsidies from the state to supplement their school funding, and a formula for funding schools with a rolling three-year average creates “phantom students” in each district. The bill would phase out small school subsidies, but would shift those funds into budgets of formerly-small districts which consolidate (so that towns don’t lose funding in the consolidation). The bill also has a provision intended to cap rates of spending increases.
According to reporting at VT Digger, an independent investigative news site, recent polling indicates a majority of Vermonters support the school consolidation move, and a majority oppose cutting small school grants. Consolidating districts would save money by eliminating duplication of administrative services, and would not necessarily close schools, although it is likely that some very small schools could end up closing. This is an emotional topic in many towns.
Elmore VT, the town with the state’s last surviving one-room schoolhouse—20 students in grades 1-3—has voted to consider consolidating with nearby Morristown.
NCTE members can be on the lookout for opportunities to communicate with their state representatives about the evolution of H.361, which, having come out of the Education committee, now moves to the Committee on Ways and Means. In addition, members should be on the lookout for other educational reform news. A bill proposing a single state-wide school district has been proposed, for example.
Up to date reporting on the Vermont education scene is always available at VT Digger.