Scott Salway

Scott Salway

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MONTPELIER — As it pushes forward on its work of developing a more equitable per-pupil weighting formula for the state’s public schools, a legislative task force got some pushback from Vermonters who say the task force should use the weighting formula reached by a University of Vermont researcher two years ago rather than cobbling together its own plan.

But lawmakers said the task force needs to apply updated data and school district boundaries in order to get it right.

At stake is whether school districts across Vermont have the adequate taxing capacity to provide equitable opportunities for public school students. A number of districts in Southern Vermont, including the Arlington, Bellows Falls Union, Brattleboro Union and Mount Anthony Union high school districts, were underweighted as of 2019, according to a Vermont Agency of Education data simulator.

Advocates say updated weights, used to calculate each district’s per-pupil spending threshold, would allow underweighted districts to raise more money for programs and services.

The formula prescribed in the UVM study, proponents argue, would provide that taxing capacity by add per-pupil weights that recognize the greater expense of educating students in poverty, in sparsely-populated rural districts, and English language learners. It would not add spending, but redistribute existing funds so that underweighted districts could raise funds for programs without overburdening taxpayers.

In comments Friday, speakers, including members of the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, were critical of the task force for a proposal to remove the weighting factor for English language learners (ELL), of its slow progress in producing an updated simulator of how the new weights would impact school districts, and of its attempting to produce new weights without the expertise of the researchers who produced the UVM report.

“You have the data. You have the numbers. You’ve read it, you’ve seen the study and it’s clear the current weighting system is not fair,” said Scott Salway of Dover, previously a teacher at Twin Valley Middle-High School.

“Our rural district is struggling to maintain it’s current level of service,” Elizabeth Erickson of Newfane said in written testimony. “Often, the few families of means remove their students from Leland and Grey seeking decent education for their children. This only decreases Leland and Grey pupil count even further and decreasing state funds. This district is in crisis to keep afloat. The low-income tax payers need more equitable support of this rural school.”

Speakers said the task force should simply apply the factors produced by the study, since they were methodically derived and peer reviewed. They said reliance upon categorical aid outside the formula, or altering the weights to avoid political blowback from overweighted districts that could see tax increases or program cuts as a result, would deprive students opportunity and further cyclical poverty and systemic racism.

The toughest criticism came from Winooski School Board member Tori Cleiland, who asked the task force “Why are you going rogue with the lives of Vermont’s children?” Winooski residents have been among the loudest critics of the current weighting formula, saying it has caused high taxes and lost educational opportunity for the district’s students.

“If you fail to propose full implementation of the recommendations of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report you are absolutely making the decision to continue failing Vermont students whose lives have been touched by poverty, race, and disability. And, you are absolutely deciding to perpetuate racist and oppressive systems that continue to cause harm to the most vulnerable among us: our children,” Cleiland said.

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In a statement before the hearing Friday also issued as a letter, task force co-chairs Sen. Ruth Hardy of Addison County and Rep. Emilie Kornheiser of Brattleboro said the task force has made preliminary decisions on “targeted funding for English language learners, a more accurate measurement of students in poverty, and a mathematically consistent means for applying the weights.”

Hardy, D-Addison, and Kornheiser, D-Windham 2-1, said the original plan was to release an updated model reflecting the proposed weights, updated figures and district boundaries affected by Act 46 mergers on Oct. 20. But several factors have foiled that plan, they said, including the departure of employees from the Agency of Education and the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office and the fact the analyst started the new simulator from scratch.

The Act 46 mergers “had a significant impact on school budgeting and resource allocation decisions, enrollment figures, and school district sizes, all of which impact the findings of the report and needed to be included in the Task Force decision-making and the AOE model,” the letter said.

State Rep. Kathleen James of Manchester said it’s “reasonable” that the modeling is taking more time than anticipated, given the changes since the 2019 report and the ground the task force must cover.

“That’s a big job, and it’s better to wait until we’re sure the model is accurate, than to rush something out that might contain wonky numbers,” James, D-Bennington-4, said. “Still, I definitely understand everyone’s impatience. Obviously, school leaders want to see what we see — which they will, as soon as we have it.”

One of the questions raised by speakers, and by state Rep. Laura Sibilia in a letter to Hardy and Kornheiser on Oct. 28, is why an outside vendor wasn’t hired to produce an updated simulator. The funding was provided in the bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott, Sibilia said.

Sibilia also took issue with how the task force questioned witnesses from underweighted and overweighed districts about their spending.

“An underweighted district was inexplicably harshly interrogated as to why they didn’t spend more on their students,” Sibilia said of questions asked of a witness on Aug. 28. “A few weeks later an overweighted district was invited in to testify about the need for more resources for ELL in their school. [There was] no acknowledgement that said school already can over-access resources due to incorrect weighting.”

“When our education financing mechanism discriminates against (differentiates, treats outside of the equity calculation) people living in poverty by questioning their ability to make the same decisions their wealthy neighbors have made for 20 years that is correctly called poverty shaming,” Sibilia said. “When a community is not wealthy, the assumption is if they could make good decisions, their community wouldn’t be poor. Making good decisions does not equal wealth.”

A number of speakers also said the task force must make any new formula or simulation public before voting to send it to the full Legislature for consideration in January. That will happen, James said.

“I think it’s very important that, before we pass any final bill, we make sure we have all of the comparative information we need — to ensure we’re making the right decisions,” James said. “Everything we’re working on will be public, as is the work of any legislative committee or summer task force.”

The task force meets again Wednesday, and is scheduled to hear at 1 p.m. from Deb Brighton, Chair of the Vermont Tax Structure Commission, about the possibility of basing education funding on income rather than property value.

Greg Sukiennik covers government and politics for Vermont News & Media. Reach him at gsukiennik@benningtonbanner.com.