House Lawmakers Defeat Attempts To Change Education Policy

Mar 29, 2016

Two lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to use a vote on a school-financing bill Tuesday to enact broader reforms to education policy

The Vermont House gave preliminary approval to legislation that will set statewide property tax rates for next year. Rep. Oliver Olsen, an independent from Jamaica, offered an amendment he said would address issues with what’s known as the excess-spending penalty.

Lawmakers want to tighten the clamp on school spending by lowering spending levels at which those penalties are triggered. Under current law, those penalties come into play when districts’ per-pupil spending exceeds 121 percent of the statewide average. Lawmakers want to ratchet that down to 119 percent in 2020.

Olsen, however, said the plan is unfair to smaller districts.

“Urban schools enjoy economies of scale that rural districts simply do not have,” Olsen said.

During a debate on the House floor, Olsen compared two districts of different sizes to show how schools with higher enrollments are often able to deliver more classes and programs to their students at less cost than schools with lower student populations.

“The excess spending penalty has had and will continue to have … an even more significant impact on the smaller, typically more rural school districts that we have in Vermont,” Olsen said.

Olsen said the state needs to reconfigure the weighting system it uses to determine per-pupil expenditures, to account for the particular difficulties smaller districts face when it comes to maintaining academic opportunities for small numbers of students.

His amendment, which also called for a study of the weighting formula, failed by a wide margin. And many lawmakers said that a 2015 law that requires districts to merge into larger entities will deliver economies of scale to rural areas by the time the lower spending thresholds take effect.

Lawmakers also said lowering the threshold is a key component of the Legislature’s efforts to curb the growth in school spending.

“This amendment would remove all cost controls with no promise of a replacement,” said Essex Rep. Tim Jerman.

Arlington Rep. Cynthia Browning offered a separate amendment that she said addresses another inequity in education policy. Browning said she thinks it’s good that lawmakers passed a law last year that offers incentives to districts that merge into larger governance entities. But Browning said it’s unfair that lawmakers haven’t appropriated new money to pay for those incentives.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to shift the cost of the incentives for merging districts onto districts that may not be able to merge at all, or may not have merged yet,” Browning said.

Since lawmakers didn’t allocated general fund money to pay for the incentives, the only way to pay for them will be to adjust property tax rates upward.

Bristol Rep. David Sharpe, the chairman of the House Committee on Education, said the mergers for which the incentives have been offered will have the effect of lowering the cost of education in the districts that form larger governance entities, and therefore won’t impact overall property tax rates.