Kornheiser2

Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Windham-2.

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The legislative task force established to proposed changes in the state’s per-pupil weighting factors for K-12 education funding set its agenda on Tuesday, naming state Rep. Emilie Kornheiser of Brattleboro as a co-chair and setting an aggressive agenda for addressing the complex issues surrounding education finance in Vermont.

The committee was formed to draft legislation for implementing new per-pupil weighting factors generated in a 2019 University of Vermont study. The study found that the per-pupil weights used by the state — a means of addressing the inequity in the state’s school funding formula employed in the wake of the Brigham decision — weren’t based on empirical data, and had perpetuated rather than addressed funding inequity.

A bill passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Phil Scott established the task force to address the problem. The work will be closely scrutinized, as new per-pupil weighting factors could result in property tax rate increases in some districts — a possibility the task force is also expected to address.

Kornheiser was elected one of two co-chairs along with Sen Ruth Hardy, D-Addison.

Later Tuesday, Kornheiser said the task force’s work is an opportunity to promote a public conversation about providing educational opportunity throughout Vermont — and one that could bring Vermonters together rather than divide them between those who might see property taxes increase and those whose taxes might decrease.

‘It’s a very complex issue, and it could be a divisive issue,” Kornheiser said. “But it’s not an issue that divides along partisan lines, not urban vs. rural ones and not even large school vs. small school lines. Because of that it’s an unexpected opportunity for collaboration and solidarity.”

Asked by Sen. Andrew Perchlik, D/P-Washington, whether the task force should strive for consensus or a simple majority when making decisions, Kornheiser made the cases for consensus. “

”We’re here to draft legislation to be passed,” Kornheiser said. “If this is supposed to be actionable we need all of us on board to make it actionable. “

With so many policy questions before the committee, the Joint Fiscal Office offered a primer on the history of education funding in Vermont, and provided a proposed work plan. It initially focuses on big policy questions: Whether to consider categorical aid in place of, or in addition to, changing the weighting factors; how to define students from economically deprived backgrounds; and whether to change the Agency of Education’s powers and duties to assure “that all school districts are meeting Vermont’s education quality standards.”

Public hearings are scheduled to follow in September and October. Draft legislation is due by Dec. 15.

The question of how to define economic deprivation is important because that is one of the largest proposed weighting changes in the UVM study. The state presently applies a factor of 0.25 for students meeting the current definition of poverty; the UVM study proposes a weight of 2.97, the largest such change offered.

As for the possibility of categorical aid — seen by some as a means of addressing funding inequity by providing dollars for targeted needs — public comments offered at the end of the meeting made clear that advocates remain opposed.

Marc Schauber of Dover, the director of the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, said the only way to address the lack of equity in a predictable and systematic way is to correct the per-pupil weighting factors.

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“Categorical aid does not address actual inequity in the system,” Schauber said. “It doesn’t provide struggling districts with any certainty. Weights are how we map our student needs. ... Simply put, categorical aid is not equity.”

On quality standards, Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, one of two Republicans on the panel, made the case for measuring the results of the proposed changes. The task force should think about what measurements it uses, and in what time frame, “to tell us if we’ve done anything that makes any difference,” he said.

Another commenter, Martine Larocque Gulick, a librarian at Essex High School, offered a unique perspective: She lives in Burlington, which is considered underweighted, and works in a district considered overweighted.

”For years I have been baffled by discrepancies between the two districts,” she said. “My library budget where I worked was 10 times larger than the library at Burlington High School. I had six assistants ... BHS had one.”

Task force member Rep. Kathleen James, D-Bennington 4, said the scope of work is “very ambitious — there’s a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. But folks on this task forced, with the support of JFO, are going to be able to move through that quickly.”

James was reassured that the task force has “a framework and a roadmap. It felt like getting a syllabus in college, and I mean that in the best sense of the word.”

The committee got a first look at the potential impact of its work — a report produced by the Joint Fiscal Office using fiscal 2020 data and several policy assumptions which have yet to be decided to show how the proposed weights could affect school districts, and education property taxes. It uses pre-COVID fiscal 2020 data; keeps the school-level weights for English language learners; adopts the does not assume any changes to local school budgets from reacting to changes in the weighting calculation; and would adopt the census-based block grant special education funding model approved under Act 173 of 2018.

As such, lawmakers and JFO analysts emphasized that the simulation are a snapshot in time and should not be considered as the last word on how much education taxes would increase or decrease as a result.

That said, the report shows given a set of assumptions, that 76 districts would see their weighting increase and education property tax rates decrease, including most districts in Bennington and Windham counties, and another 40 would see weighting decreases and tax rate increases.

In Bennington and Windham counties, according to that report, the districts that would see weighting decreases are districts which accept or pay tuition for a significant amount of students: North Bennington, Sandgate, Stamford, Vernon, Windham and Winhall.

A footnote in the report addressed that situation: “Districts that charge tuition have a different funding system and will require further analysis to understand the impact of the weighting study,” it said.

Given that, James was not ready to address why that’s the case. “It’s too early to draw conclusions or see patterns. We’re not there yet,” she said.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, a key supporter of changing the weights, said that JFO report is of more use to lawmakers than it is to the public at this point, given the variables at play. “I question the advisability of that,” she said, adding that she’d like to see a simulator that allows users to plug in different variables rather than a snapshot assuming policy decisions that have yet to be made.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for Vermont News & Media. 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.