Pupil-weighting system comes under fire

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MONTPELIER — The Statehouse filled with voices of community members distraught over a component of the state's education funding formula they say has brought about unfairness.

"I am not here to complain to the Legislature that my taxes are too high," Douglas Korb, chairman of the Marlboro School Board, said Wednesday, during a news conference to demand action on the Pupil Weighting Factors Report at the Statehouse. "I am here to demand equity and accountability."

Weighting of students adjusts for differences in educational costs, according to an op-ed read by state Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, at the conference. She said changing those weights has the effect of changing the overall number of students in a district.

"Generally, under Act 60," she said, referring to Vermont's Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1997, "decreasing the number of students increases a district's cost per pupil and tax rates. Increasing the number of students decreases a district's cost per pupil."

The report on pupil weighting was completed in December and sent to legislative committees. Its authors were educational researchers from University of Vermont, Rutgers University, American Institute for Research and American Institutes for Research Constitutional.

They suggested making separate grade-level weights for students in grades 6 to 8 and secondary students in grades 9 to 12 but not changing the weight for pre-K students. They recommend applying different population density weights so that districts would be eligible for an adjustment if they are in areas with fewer than 100 people per square mile. They also proposed increasing separate weights used for the number of students who are economically disadvantaged or English language learners.

"The researchers," Sibilia said, "found little empirical evidence for Vermont's existing weights. ... The report findings indicate that since Act 60, Vermont has denied rural and poor students access to equitable financial resources and we have financially penalized districts that have tried to spend the resources to meet their poor and rural students' needs."

State Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham-3, said the findings bring up questions about constitutionality.

Korb said as a board member he wants to provide "adequate programming and infrastructure" for students. As a taxpayer, parent and Vermont resident, "I want to help the Legislature understand that the law they passed over 20 years ago cannot be disregarded, put on hold, or ignored."

"The Marlboro School Board, its community and the 76 other districts impacted by this egregious oversight insist upon immediate implementation of the weighting system recommended by the study," he said. "We are not a group of towns looking for a handout. We are your neighbors in southern and northern Vermont who have seen increases and penalties only to find out that for years we have not been provided the opportunities that so many other districts have. It is an outrage, and if I were on a legislative committee overseeing the change I would not be questioning when to implement it but rather apologizing and stating, 'It will be fixed.'"

Al Claussen of Townshend, vice chairman of the West River Education District board, said the report provided his board with hope that the state would implement recommendations to "restore equity for our students."

"The time to do the right thing is now," he said at the press conference. "The people of the West River Education District are suffering with a high tax burden. Schools have outlasted their expected lifetimes and have many overdue repairs yet we continue to kick the can down the road. We need this reform."

West River includes schools in Jamaica, Newfane and Townshend. Voters come from those towns as well as Windham and Brookline.

Press conference speakers also included school officials and community members from the Northeast Kingdom and Chittenden County.

Korb told the Reformer he was invited to participate because Marlboro is "one of the many towns that for years have been basically disenfranchised or not been given the opportunities other towns have." He explained the funding formula issue is one of oversight but he worries change might not come because other towns are fearful of a tax increase.

Marlboro did not merge under Act 46, the 2015 state education law that encouraged school districts to consolidate to improve student equities and find efficiencies. But it is hardly alone in the Windham Central Supervisory Union, where proposed budgets featured anywhere from a 5-cent increase on the tax rate to 63 cents from last fiscal year to next, according to Korb's analysis which does not factor in tax breaks offered as incentives under the law.

Marlboro's will go up by about 30 cents after voters at annual Town Meeting last week approved the school budget. That same day, the town approved a resolution asking the state to forgive an approximately $200,000 penalty the school district is facing for exceeding the state's spending threshold.

"We'll see where that goes," Korb said. "Probably nowhere."

He said suggestions from the weighting report would provide relief. And he's calling for the Legislature to act immediately.

The recommendations would have Marlboro's equalized pupil count at 146 instead of 136, bringing per-pupil spending down by about $1,200. The district would have a $1.53 tax rate for every $100 of assessed property value versus $1.71.

The proposed West River budget also exceeds the spending threshold. Claussen said a 3 percent increase translates to 15 percent.

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"The funding formula is broken," he said. "The findings in the weighting study need to be the catalyst for education funding reform. We need to be able to provide this generation of students with the resources, tools and environment that helps them thrive, while balancing the needs of our stretched taxpayers in the West River Valley."

At the press conference, Meg Staloff of Wilmington said residents in her town pay the highest education tax rate in the state.

"But despite our high property values, which are driven by wealthy second homeowners, much of our resident population is living in poverty," she said. "In our elementary school, 62 percent of our students get free or reduced lunch. Meanwhile, our schools struggle to cut budgets and stay below the excess spending threshold."

Staloff recalled annual Town Meeting in Twin Valley Elementary School, where buckets were set up around the gym to catch water leaking from the roof.

"Our elementary school ranks 111th of 142 schools in Vermont," she said. "Clearly, our students are not getting the education that our community is paying for."

Staloff called for "swift action" on the report's recommendations. That, she said, can "begin to chart a more reasonable and just path forward for our state."

Korb told the Reformer it is clear, the state has been weighting pupils incorrectly for 20 years and the report's recommendations have the support of the Vermont Agency of Education. He worried a study committee, an idea that's been discussed, would only end up with the same results as the report. He said the weighting can be corrected before the Legislature takes a deeper dive into reforming education funding overall, which he believes could take years.

Like other local schools, Marlboro has deferred maintenance. Korb said about 10 gallons of water can come through the ceiling of a shared 5th/6th grade classroom on a day when ice is melting or during a heavy rainstorm.

His board looked at cutting programs such as art and Spanish but ultimately decided against it.

"Our town is very supportive of our school," he said. "But there's only so much you can ask somebody to keep giving when you're realizing slowly, it's starting to seep in, that this is just inequitable."

He said the district isn't able to give students the same opportunities as other districts because of how spread out Marlboro is.

Korb wondered if the weighting changes could be phased in, like tax rate breaks for districts that merged voluntarily under Act 46.

"Why can't Chittenden, every year, go up a few cents?" he told the Reformer. "When you look at the towns benefiting, you can see the affluence."

The changes make sense and seem "humane," Korb said. He noted that a lot of Marlboro voters were upset with the Legislature.

"There's a lack of trust ... you're seeing people come to us at Town Meeting saying, 'We don't trust them to do the right thing,'" he said. "And that's scary."

He questioned how lawmakers missed the weighting issues when making "sweeping changes" in crafting Act 46, when concerns had to do with opportunity and equity.

His hope is to be able to expand the school's offerings. It went from 75 to 102 students in the last two years largely due to the pre-k, he said, but the district could have more students.

Last spring, the board hired Banwell Architects to look at expanding the school's footprint.

"But this tax rate just sunk our dreams and hopes," Korb said. "The state used to give capital improvement. They don't anymore. It's all on the towns basically."

Rep. Sibilia told the Reformer she was "pleased" to be sharing information with small and large districts from across the state at a public hearing that followed the press conference.

During a budget information meeting Tuesday night, Windham Southeast School District board Chairwoman Kristina Naylor called attention to the issue. She said the district would be "greatly helped" by making recommended weighting changes. The district includes schools in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney.

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


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