MONTPELIER — The state Senate Education Committee hopes to have its version of changing the way Vermont’s K-12 schools count students for budgeting purposes ready by Friday for a committee vote, in order to meet the Legislature’s crossover deadline.
The bill, currently a strikethrough amendment to S. 13, is a good deal different from its House counterpart, H. 54, which is in the House Education Committee but not on the committee’s agenda this week.
Unlike S. 54 which proposes applying the per-pupil weights derived by a University of Vermont study at the Legislature’s direction, S. 13 establishes a task force of six — four lawmakers, the Secretary of Education and the chair of the state Board of Education — to determine how the new weights will be applied. Its report is due by January of next year.
The senate bill’s current language allows the task force to “recommend which weighting factors to modify or create ... and whether any weights should be eliminated in lieu of use of categorical grants.”
The House bill prescribes the weights determined by the UVM study and sets forth a phasing-in of education property tax increases in districts where the new formula would lead to that outcome. It also proposes suspending the overspending penalty — the dollar for dollar assessment for districts exceeding the state recommended per-pupil expenditure — for Fiscal 2022.
But it’s still sitting in the House Education Committee. That panel’s chair, Rep, Kathryn Webb, said the committee “has turned attention to three bills that needed to move by cross-over,” including bills on literacy, community schools and school building construction assistance.
“The plan in February was to start in the Senate,” Webb said. “In the meantime, there is an abundance of federal dollars going to school districts based on [federal] Title I allocations,” a topic the House Education Committee intends to take up Thursday, she said.
HOW IT WORKS
In calculating per-pupil expenditure for a given budget year to meet the equity requirements of the Brigham court decision, the formula assigns more weight to students in rural and/or economically disadvantaged communities, or those for whom English is not a first language, by counting them as more than a single student.
But a study of the weighting system completed by University of Vermont researchers in December 2019 revealed what many rural school boards in Vermont communities had been saying for years: the current weights are badly outdated. It proposes much larger weights for students in poverty and adds weights for rural students.
Senate Education Committee members made clear on Wednesday that they see their version as an implementation plan, rather than a “study of the study.” State Sen. Andrew Perchlik, D/P-Washington, said the bill should make clear its goal is implementation, and suggested a timeline be set in the bill.
“I agree with the criticism people received we’re studying the study,” Perchlik said. “We’re trying to implement the study.”
State Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden said she’d heard the same criticism about perceived foot-dragging, noting that the body has another month and a half to “do a deep dive and work through all this.”
“The response I would have is then it has to go to the House for a same deep dive and possible a conference committee,” Lyons said. “Why not have that deep dive with a task force that can accomplish all that more comprehensively?”
Witness testimony and senators’ comments reflected the tension between calls for immediate action and desires to handle a situation with budget and property tax “winners and losers” carefully, and prepare districts likely to see increases as a result.
Sen. Thomas Chittenden, D-Chittenden, said the impact on communities where taxes rise might result in negative outcomes. “This doesn’t mean the ‘losers’ are going to approve these much higher school budgets,” he said. “They’ll have to slash to the bone and they’ll have to reduce funding.”
Witnesses including Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, Sue Ceglowski, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, and Jay Nichols, director of the Vermont Principals Association, all generally supported S. 13’s approach.
Francis said the importance of a careful process for implementation cannot be overstated. He also suggested the task force be required to assure input from local school officials, school communities and citizens.
Ceglowski said the School Boards Association, said the group still has “strong support” for the findings of the weighting study “and a thoughtful and expeditious implementation plan,” and called bill a step in the right direction.
The task force would consider education property tax rates and how the factors would relate to the recommendations offered by the tax structure commission, as well as how to transition to the new weights to promote equity and ease the financial impact on school districts during the transition.
It would also recommend how tuition rates for non-operating school districts and career technical centers should be adjusted to account for the cost of educating students.
When the committee got its first look at the amendment on Tuesday, Lyons noted the differing opinions about how fast the process should go.
“There are people that understand we need to take some time on this,” Lyons said. “People who understand what weighting means understand the need to take some time. It’s people who don’t understand this who think we should move a little bit faster.”
That was not well received by Douglas Korb, a member of the Marlboro School Board and part of a statewide coalition pushing to have the weighting study implemented more quickly.
Korb said that comment was “highly insulting” to school board members who have faced budget cuts as a result of the current per-pupil weights. He was glad to hear Perchlik speak about the task force being a means to an end, and pleased that the Senate committee is pressing ahead on getting a bill finished by crossover.
“There can be no more kicking the can down the road. We can’t afford to have that happen any longer,” Korb said.
That said, Korb is concerned that the Senate version takes what he called a watered down approach that assures the weights won’t change for another two fiscal years. And he’s doubly concerned that once the bill reaches the House, it could get watered down even more.
“It’s a complete disservice to the kids especially when we know the problem exists,” he said.