School taxes, grants divide local lawmakers
BRATTLEBORO -- In education, there are the traditional "three Rs" -- reading, writing and arithmetic.
But legislators may see the need to add a fourth -- revenue -- based on intense debate in Montpelier over the past week. Education funding took center stage, and Windham County's state representatives took stances on taxes, audits, administrative spending and small school grants.
The latter topic divided some local lawmakers, as the latest proposal has those grants disappearing in 2019.
If that happens, "the towns negatively impacted in Windham County are Dover, Dummerston, Guilford, Halifax, Jamaica, Londonderry, Marlboro, Townshend, Wardsboro, Windham and Grafton Elementary School, which has students from both Athens and Grafton," said Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon.
But Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro and a member of the House Education Committee, said the time has come to phase out the annual subsidy to the state's smaller educational facilities.
"It's really a tax-fairness issue," Stuart said. "While we're very sympathetic to the fact that these schools rely on that (grant), it's not fair for them to get a reprieve to prop up their schools."
Education funding has been a hot topic this spring, and there has been unrest among legislators and the general population. Statewide, more than 30 proposed school budgets were rejected by voters this year; locally, Vernon Elementary's budget went down on Town Meeting day, and the Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School budget has failed twice.
Some lawmakers have called for overhauling Vermont's complex system of collecting and then redistributing local education-tax proceeds in the name of equality. On Thursday, two Republicans -- Reps. Heidi Scheuermann of Stowe and Patti Komline of Dorset -- proposed scrapping Acts 60 and 68, the state's school-funding laws.
Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, was happy to see that attempt defeated during Thursday's debate.
"The House soundly rejected a political ploy offered as an amendment that would blow up the current funding plan with no plan to replace it with anything else," Mrowicki said. "This is Washington, D.C.-style politics and has no place in Vermont, and I'm glad it was rejected by an overwhelming majority of House members."
Mrowicki also praised a House vote that would raise the statewide education tax for residents by 4 cents, down from the 7-cent hike that had been projected. That is "as good a deal as we could get this year," Mrowicki said.
But Rep. Tim Goodwin, an independent from the Windham-Bennington-Windsor House district, said he supported Scheuermann's proposal. Goodwin also lamented another increase in the statewide educational property tax.
"Is there an end in sight?" Goodwin asked. "As Heidi Scheuermann stated during proposal of her amendment: It would be a good thing if Vermonters could see a light at the end of the tunnel that was not a train coming the other way."
The House on Friday gave final approval to the education funding bill, which now goes to the Senate.
Also dividing local representatives was the debate over small school grants. Goodwin said he supports keeping the grants, and Hebert voted that way as well.
"Rep. Vicki Strong of Albany offered an amendment that would have continued support for small schools throughout the state," Hebert added. "I and many others supported this amendment, (which), unfortunately, did not pass."
At the same time, though, Hebert noted that a successful amendment would create a state "education analyst" who would earn more than $82,000.
"Also, $400,000 was appropriated to create a handbook for school business managers," Hebert said. "This caused concerns, as the Department of Education has already done much of the work to provide such a handbook."
Stuart, however, said Strong's grant amendment was defeated for good reason: The small school grant is "an $8 million line item," she said.
She added that the scheduled 2019 grant sunset gives smaller schools "plenty of time to figure out how to work off the same set of rules that the rest of us do."
Vermont simply does not have the resources to continue such a spending program, Stuart argues.
"The whole issue is tiny schools with high costs that we have to subsidize," she said. "It doesn't work."
While Goodwin was feeling that small schools took a beating, he also noted the successful passage of an amendment he had offered to assist such institutions -- a move "to return audits of school districts to a three-year cycle from the current annual requirement."
"It had been a three-year cycle until the 2012 session," Goodwin said. "For small districts ... an annual audit is expensive overkill. It passed the House overwhelmingly."
In other legislative news related to Windham County and its lawmakers:
-- Also on the education front, Stuart said the House Ways and Means and Education committees are scheduled to hold a joint hearing from 5-7 p.m. Wednesday in Room 11 of the Statehouse on H.883.
The controversial bill proposes a major restructuring of Vermont's school districts. While some argue it will undermine local control, Stuart supports the move.
The bill "may be the most important piece of education legislation since Vermont enacted Act 60 and Act 68, the statutes that govern Vermont's extremely equitable education-funding system," Stuart said. "The bill proposes to expand school districts by streamlining our current school-governance structure from 282 school districts and 60 supervisory unions to 45 to 50 school districts."
The goal, Stuart said, is "to ensure our education system's governance structure provides equal access to equal opportunities to all of Vermont's children."
-- Local solar-power advocates say Vermont is expanding energy opportunities with Gov. Peter Shumlin's signing on Tuesday of new net-metering legislation.
The law increases the amount of electricity that small-scale power generators -- including photovoltaic panels -- can send to the grid. Net-metering formerly was capped at 4 percent of a utility's peak load; the new law raises that cap to 15 percent.
The move is "basically good news for everybody," declared Peter Thurrell, president of Westminster-based Soveren Solar.
"It allows for almost four times more distributed-generation solar in Vermont than before," Thurrell said. "In many other states, utilities fight strongly and with a lot of money to stop or limit solar, because it forces them to learn how to do business with a different model. In Vermont, Green Mountain Power has led the way toward more solar."
Thurrell added that "this bill paves the way for more and larger solar farms like those we are building for our Community Solar Project."
Tad Montgomery, who operates Solarize Windham, said Vermont's utilities "understand that it saves everybody money when people put small-scale solar on their houses."
By encouraging proliferation of small-scale power generation, utilities are taking stress off "big transmission grids" and lessening the need for expensive system upgrades, Montgomery said.
"On top of that, there's this wonderful synergy with solar," he said. "In the middle of a hot summer day, the peak electric cost skyrockets. And solar just happens to offset that peak load wonderfully. It's almost a perfect match."
-- Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, said the House Transportation Committee received from the Senate and then approved a miscellaneous motor vehicle bill consisting of an "eclectic mix" of changes.
For instance, Burke said, there are provisions related to licenses; nondriver identification cards; placement of validation stickers on license plates; the ability of motorcycle owners to obtain low-number license plates; arrangements for out-of-state drivers with a learners' permit; and insurance for driver training schools.
There also is a proposed change for "situations where a person is stopped without a driver's license or registration in the vehicle," Burke said.
The Transportation Committee voted to allow drivers seven days to produce that documentation.
"This latter provision illustrates that conversations within our committee, and other committees, often are about real-life situations affecting the daily lives of Vermonters," Burke said. "Our committee voted to extend the period to seven days (from five as voted by the Senate) in order to provide more flexibility for a citizen who might be out of town and unable to access a license in a short amount of time."
Mike Faher is the political beat writer at the Reformer. He can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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