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Teachers Vow Fight Against Proposed Spending Cap On Schools

House lawmakers have spent much of the 2015 legislative session looking for ways to curb the growth of property taxes. Their new plan to impose spending caps on school budgets might help accomplish that goal. But it has also earned legislators some new and powerful enemies.

Lawmakers in the House Committee on Education broke into applause last week after their unanimous vote in favor of a wide-ranging education reform bill. But not everyone is a fan.

The legislation represents the most aggressive school reform proposal from Democrats since they assumed control of the Vermont House in 2004. And this push for legislative intervention in local spending decisions will face an intense opposition.

“It is an assault on voters’ intelligence to suggest that they don’t know how to analyze their own school budgets and vote accordingly,” says Darren Allen, spokesman for the Vermont teachers union.

"It is an assault on voters' intelligence to suggest that they don't know how to analyze their own school budgets and vote accordingly." - Darren Allen, spokesman for the Vermont teachers union.

The bill contains a number of controversial provisions. Vermont now has almost 300 separate school districts, some with only a few dozen students. But the bill under consideration in the House would require all districts in Vermont to consolidate into new districts of at least 1,100 students over the next three years.

The legislation, which contains tax incentives designed to expedite the consolidation process, would also phase out the financial grants that are helping many smaller schools stay afloat.

Rep. David Sharpe, the Democratic chairman of the education committee, says it’s not just about saving money.

“It should transform the educational structure across the state, save money, and deliver better educational outcomes for our students,” Sharpe says.

But the most contentious provision in the bill calls for a hard cap on per-pupil spending increases.

"If a vote for a community exceeds 2 percent per pupil in expenditures, it's deemed to have failed." - Rep. David Sharpe

“If a vote for a community exceeds 2 percent per pupil in expenditures, it’s deemed to have failed,” Sharpe says.

The consolidation mandate would take years to complete, and it’s difficult to calculate how much money, if any, the measure would save. Preliminary projections peg annual savings related to district consolidation at anywhere between $25 million and $50 million annually, out of an approximately $1.5 billion public education system.

The spending cap provision, however, would enforce more immediate spending constraint. If the provision were in effect this year, according to legislative analysts, districts would have had to trim more than $30 million from the budgets they’ll be presenting to voters on Town Meeting Day.

"Every other state that has imposed hard spending caps has seen the quality of their local schools diminish." - Darren Allen

The cap means officials could not present to voters any budget plan that resulted in a more than 2 percent increase in per-pupil costs. And it’s this language that teachers object to the most. Allen says it’s a blunt policy instrument that will inflict serious harm on public schools.

“Every other state that has imposed hard spending caps has seen the quality of their local schools diminish,” Allen says.

While Democrats may have antagonized a longtime political ally in the teachers union, they have won some measured praise from their main political opposition. The bill won a ‘yes’ vote from all four Republicans on the education committee.

House Minority Leader Don Turner says those votes aren’t an endorsement of the bill. But he says the GOP is intrigued enough by the bill to want to remain engaged in the legislative process.

“So overall we think the bill is moving in the right direction. But by no means do I want Vermonters to think that this bill is going to prevent their property taxes from going up as they have for the past few years,” Turner says.

"So overall we think the bill is moving in the right direction. But by no means do I want Vermonters to think that this bill is going to prevent their property taxes from going up as they have for the past few years." - Don Turner, House minority leader

But even diehard proponents of education funding reform say the House Education Committee’s approach could do more harm than good.

Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, a Republican, has long advocated for an overhaul of the education financing system, from a statewide model to a more regionalized plan. But she says the consolidation mandate, along with the spending cap, amount to undue intrusion on local control.

“It’s unfortunate, taking away more authority from local school boards and local decision makers and local voters,” Scheuermann says.

The legislation will face heavy political turbulence on its path through the Legislature. House Speaker Shap Smith says he thinks school budget votes on Town Meeting Day could figure largely in how far lawmakers are willing to go with education reform in 2015.

“If a lot of budgets go down, and people hear from their constituents that they’re fed up, then I think that it will give renewed urgency both to the House and the Senate to get a bill to the governor’s desk,” Smith says.

The House Committee on Ways and Means will debate the proposed spending cap when lawmakers return to Montpelier next week. Sharpe says the version of the cap in the education committee’s bill is admittedly flawed, insofar as it fails to recognize various factors that might make a per-pupil spending increases of more than 2 percent necessary for some districts.

“It’s a simple cap, which makes it probably not as fair as it ought to be,” Sharpe says.

The House Committee on Ways and Means, according to Sharpe, will see whether they can design a cap that recognizes the unique circumstances facing individual districts.

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