Kathleen James

Rep. Kathleen James, D-Bennington 4

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MONTPELIER — House Education Committee chairwoman Rep. Kathryn Webb joked that Thursday was “take your legislator to school day” in the Vermont House of Representatives.

Kidding aside, it wasn’t far from the truth: the House gave preliminary approval to a trio of education bills during its afternoon session, including grant-funded programs on literacy and community schools, and a proposal to revive the state school building assistance program.

The community schools program, H. 106, was the most controversial of these, passing on voice vote with the largest number of “nays” heard among the three proposals.

The bill would fund the hiring of community coordinators in community school pilot programs in 10 school districts statewide, with eligibility going to districts with one school with at least 40 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

BIll sponsor Rep. Kathleen James, D-Bennington 4, cited the example of programs at Molly Stark School in Bennington — where a community partnership with the Sunrise Family Resource Center provides child care for working parents — as a vision of how community schools could work.

James presented the bill as a means to “tackle head-on the problem of poverty” for Vermont children by providing resources in a central location for families and children, at a time the state is recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It helps children overcome out-of-school barriers that hold them back and keep them from succeeding,” James said. She said it’s a means “not just to recover but to reinvent, to turn this dire challenge into what could be a remarkable opportunity.”

The key to the proposal is the hiring of a community coordinator who would be responsible for establishing partnerships with social service agencies and health services, as well as identifying potential funding sources.

The bill proposes to spend $3.39 million in federal funds through September of 2024.

While Democrats and independents spoke in support of the bill, several Republicans spoke to concerns — some granular, others more fundamental — about the bill.

Among more pressing concerns: Rep. Eileen Dickenson, R-Franklin 3-2 asked whether the community school programs would have to be funded by districts at the local level.

“There’s definitely not a cookie-cutter approach,” James said. “It depends on how services are able to be brought to school,” with local school district and community leaders making that decision.

At least three established federal grant programs could be tapped to fund such programs, James said.

But Dickenson was also impressed about what James had to say about the programs offered at Molly Stark School. “I was just thinking Molly Stark sounds too good to be true,” she said.

Another larger concern was raised by House Minority Leader Rep. Pattie McCoy of Poultney, who asked about the lack of specified qualifications for the community coordinator in the bill. “I think it’s a little loosey-goosey,” she said.

Rep, Art Peterson, R-Rutland 2, was opposed to the bill outright.

“I don’t know we do families and parents any long-term favors by taking their responsibility away and wrapping it under the umbrella of school,” he said.

Supporters didn’t see it that way.

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Reps. Barbara Rachelson, D-Chittenden 6-6, and Tanya Vyhovsky, D/P-Chittenden 8-1, both social workers, said resources to help address hunger, physical health and mental health would have a positive impact on how children learn.

“If a child is hungry, if they’re depressed, if they’re wondering if their family is going to be ok ... it’s going to interfere with learning,” Rachelson said.

LITERACY

In a voice vote with one “nay,” the House passed on second reading a bill establishing a three-year literacy instruction grant program.

Like the community school bill, the literacy bill, H.101, mirrors work done last year in a bill that was progressing through the House before the COVID-19 pandemic put it on the back burner.

The initiative came about last year when the 2019 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed the state’s fourth-grade reading scores had declined over the four previous years, and that only 37 percent of Vermont fourth-graders were reading at a proficient level.

To change that trend, the bill proposes grants to school districts to improve literacy instruction for all students, and especially for specialists working with students needing additional instruction. The proposal requires applicants to show how they will improve literacy in their district and report their progress annually.

The House Appropriations Committee increased funding, all from federal grant sources, to $3 million from $2 million — $1 million per year.

Republican members including Petersen, R-Rutland 2, asked if the program would continue once the federal funding ran out — and if the state would be on the hook for the cost on and after. In response Education Committee chair Kathryn Webb, D-Chittenden-5-1, said while the federal funding would run out, the training it paid for would remain in place.

A similar bill is moving forward in the state Senate.

FACILITIES

The school building assistance bill, which also passed on a voice vote with little or no resistance, requires the state Agency of Education to conduct a study of school facilities needs.

The bill, H. 426, also mandates a study of how neighboring states have funded school building assistance programs. Vermont’s neighbors all have such programs; the Green Mountain State last offered school building assistance funds in 2007.

Between 2008 and 2019, school districts in Vermont issued about $211 million in bonds for school construction projects, and public school districts have proposed or are planning an estimated $445 million in future school construction projects statewide, according to the bill.

Bill presenter Rep. John Arrison, D-Windsor 2, said the Education Committee heard from school district leaders in the Northeast Kingdom who are “desperate to get work done.”

“The goal should be equity,” he said, and without proper facilities, that goal cannot be achieved.

At the start of business, at the urging of Rep. Bill Lippert, the House held a moment of silence for the victims of a shooting targeting Asian women in Atlanta on Tuesday.

“Madam Speaker, we must end violence, we must end racism, we must end sexism that leads to violence,” Lippert said, speaking slowly in measured tones.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.