Officials call for 'pupil weighting' reform

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, (left) has been a proponent of looking at the way the state calculates education funding. Also pictured is Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint.

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DOVER — A new report finding inequities for students in rural areas has prompted local officials to request changes right away.

"We are asking for immediate relief as for almost 20 years, Vermont public school students have been 'weighted' using a formula for which no factual basis could be determined, according to the Report," Rich Werner, chairman of the Windham Central Supervisory Union board, wrote in a letter to legislators and professional education organizations. "This has meant that students living in parts of Vermont that are more rural, have larger percentages living in poverty, and where English is less likely to be the first language have been penalized for all of this time."

The Vermont Legislature commissioned the Pupil Weighting Factors Report, which was released in December. The authors said there had been concerns about the effectiveness of the existing education funding formula.

In an effort to be more equitable, different weights are assigned to students according to age, economic disadvantage and ability to speak the English language. The authors of the report said the calculation has not been updated in more than 20 years "despite the significant changes in statewide demographics and student need that have transpired during that time."

The authors found "clear evidence that districts located in Vermont's most sparsely populated areas must spend more to provide similar educational opportunities as those found in districts located in more populated areas of the state." They recommended that new weights for students in districts located in rural areas be tied to population density of the host community.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, had been a proponent of studying the issue. She said the current funding system does not treat small and rural districts fairly.

"So we've been pushing and pushing," she said during the River Valleys Unified School District's annual meeting last week, recalling how Dover paid for consultants to explore the issue and for lobbyists to fight for the community in the Statehouse.

The River Valleys district is made up of Dover and Wardsboro elementary schools. Sibilia and Werner are on the board and served on the Dover School Board before the two districts merged.

Sibilia said the authors of the report looked at school districts throughout the United States and came up with recommendations such as adding more weight to students in rural areas or students who are learning English.

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"What it should mean is that some districts will have access to more resources and some will feel some pressure to reduce their resources," she said. "And by and large, those are large, wealthy districts that would feel pressure to kind of push down."

Most school districts in Windham County have been penalized by the system, including Brattleboro, Sibilia said. She encouraged voters to tell their legislators about how they might have been affected.

Last week, the Windham Central board met to talk about the report.

"This is a subject which we have discussed in the past with great interest," Werner wrote.

He said the board overwhelmingly voted to have him write the letter to legislators and professional education organizations to urge them to review the report. The board also requested that the Legislature implement changes to pupil weights recommended in the report and not make any other changes to school finance until the full Legislature has the opportunity to review the report.

With bills proposing revisions to the weighting calculation now being considered by legislators, Werner wrote, "We ask that you support and vote for these efforts so that all Vermont schoolchildren will have access to educational opportunities based on a fair and even distribution of Education funds and support legislation being introduced in the Vermont Legislature that addresses the 'Pupil Weighting Factors Report.'"

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.