State Asks Judge To Dismiss Education Fund Lawsuit Filed By Town Of Whitingham

Sep 6, 2018

The state wants a judge to dismiss a lawsuit that challenges Vermont’s public education funding system.

The Windham County town of Whitingham, along with resident Madeline Klein and Sadie Boyd, a student in the town’s school system, filed the suit late last year.

The suit argues that the statewide education funding system unfairly penalizes school districts with populations that are neither very large nor very small.

And it goes on to say that the students in Whitingham are not receiving an educational experience equal to those offered in larger schools.

But in the Windham County Superior Courthouse in Newfane on Wednesday, Vermont Assistant Attorney General David Boyd asked Judge Robert Gerety to dismiss the case.

The plaintiffs are challenging the state’s equalized pupil spending formula, and the excess spending formula which penalizes districts that spend more than a state-set threshold.

The suit argues that the statewide education funding system unfairly penalizes school districts with populations that are neither very large nor very small.

Boyd said the town should not be involved because it neither provides education (as that's the district's responsibility) nor sets the tax rates (as that's the state's responsibility).

He then went on to argue that the two residents are raising tax issues, which should be settled outside of a courtroom.

“This is a tax case, not an education funding case,” Boyd said.

But Brattleboro attorney James Valente, who is representing the group from Whitingham, said the state’s education tax funding system is not working for mid-sized towns like Whitingham, and he asked the judge to allow the lawsuit to proceed.

Valente said larger school districts that can benefit from economies of scale can maintain their school systems, while very small districts receive extra help.

He also said the state formula creates a “hole in the middle,” where many districts like Whitingham struggle to meet the needs of their students.

“Based on a review of different school offerings there appears to be a substantial disparity, not only in per pupil spending, but in what the individual student experience is at a very large school, a very small school, and at a school of the size like Whitingham is,” Valente told the judge.

"Our claim is that the people in Whitingham are not receiving substantially equal educational opportunities." — James Valente, attorney for town of Whitingham

The two sides argued over whether the plaintiffs were asking for a special mid-sized subsidy, with the state saying there was no Constitutional right for such extra assistance.

Valente said his clients were asking for no such special treatment. He said the problems facing mid-sized schools were created by the unintendend consequences of the statewide formula.

“Our claim is that the people in Whitingham are not receiving substantially equal educational opportunities,” he said.

The judge is expected to issue a ruling on whether the case can move forward in the coming weeks.