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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

For Lawmakers, Solutions Elusive In Education Financing Dilemma

As results on school budget votes poured in from across the state Tuesday night, local board members weren’t the only ones taking notice. Lawmakers too were keeping a close eye on voting trends. And legislators like Rep. Joey Donovan, D-Burlington, the chairwoman of the House Committee on Education, say the message was loud and clear.

“I think there’s a little bit of revolution afoot,” Donovan says. “I think people want to support kids, but they want to know they’re doing it in a real cost-effective way.”

But while lawmakers may have heard their constituents’ frustration, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily poised to do anything about it.

The debate over Vermont’s education financing system is an old one. And there’s general agreement in Montpelier, even among Democrats, that Act 68 needs to at least be revised, and perhaps even replaced.

But years of legislative back-and-forth have yet to result in any substantive reforms. House Speaker Shap Smith says the results from Tuesday’s votes lend urgency to the debate over education funding changes.

"We shouldn't do something just because there's urgency; we need to take the time to do it right."- House Speaker Shap Smith

  “But we shouldn’t do something just because there’s urgency – we need to take the time to do it right,” Smith says. “If we can get it right by the end of the session, well that’s great. But if it takes two sessions to get it done, then I’m willing to take that time to make sure that we get it right, not do something rash.”

Rep. Janet Ancel, a Calais Democrat, is the chairwoman of the House Committee on Ways and Means. She says that even voters in communities that supported their local school budgets are expressing discontent with a system that results in large tax-rate increases even for districts that kept overall budget increases below the rate of inflation.

Last year, Ancel’s committee passed a package of revisions to Act 68, most of which were rejected by the Senate. Ancel says her committee is working on a similar piece of legislation this year. The bill could include stricter limits on how much schools can spend before being hit with financial penalties, as well as a reduction in income sensitivity – a provision that reduces the tax liabilities of households making up to about $95,000 per year. Critics of income sensitivity say it promotes increased education spending by insulating many property owners from the full financial consequences of their votes on local school budgets.

“There isn’t an obvious or easy solution, and we’ve spent a lot of time in Ways and Means, spent a lot of time last year outing together a bill that we thought would, you know, maybe not a huge impact on costs, but beginning to move in that direction,” Ancel says.

Legislation being pushed by Donovan’s education committee would consolidate school districts in the state. But while that effort might yield savings in the long run, it could actually increase costs more immediately.

Gov. Peter Shumlin says that if Vermonters are looking for silver-bullet solutions from elected officials in Montpelier this year, then they’re going to be disappointed. And while the state has to find ways to get education spending under control, Shumlin says it isn’t a problem that will be solved easily, or quickly.

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