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

Plan To Cap School Spending Stymies Legislators

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A bill that calls for larger school districts throughout the state by 2018 and a 2 percent cap on local per-pupil spending rates is facing skepticism in the Statehouse.

The House Education committee is going back to the drawing board on a controversial plan to cap school spending next year. Although the plan has drawn a lot of criticism, the chairman of the committee says it's critical to curb school spending over the next few years.

Two weeks ago, the House Education committee voted for a bill that calls for larger school districts throughout the state by 2018. The legislation also includes a 2 percent cap on local per-pupil spending rates.

Steve Dale, the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, says his group opposes the cap because it unfairly restricts local school boards. For instance, Dale questions what would happen if a group of special education students unexpectedly entered a school district or perhaps if a school roof needed to be replaced immediately.

"I understand they were trying to convey a message that, ‘We've heard you and we take this seriously,’ but when you start to get into any level of analysis on that it just plain doesn't work,” Dale says.

"I understand they [legislators] were trying to convey a message that, 'We've heard you and we take this seriously,’ but when you start to get into any level of analysis on that it just plain doesn't work." - Steve Dale, Vermont School Boards Association executive director

The bill is being reviewed by the House Ways and Means committee. Calais Rep. Janet Ancel, the chairwomen of the panel, says she doesn't think the cap is ready for prime time in its present form.

"I think we've heard concerns expressed, even from members of the House Education committee, so we're hoping they take another look at it,” Ancel says.

Bristol Rep. Dave Sharpe, the chairman of the House Education committee, agrees that the proposed cap needs to be changed. And he wants a small group of lawmakers to come up with a more precise approach.

"It's a pretty blunt instrument at the moment,” says Sharpe. “And I believe it needs to be fine tuned before it goes to the floor."

"I think we've heard concerns expressed, even from members of the House Education committee, so we're hoping they take another look at it." - Calais Rep. Janet Ancel

But Sharpe also feels very strongly that some mechanism to curb school spending is needed until the major provisions of his larger bill take effect.

"We've had voters express strongly their concerns over property taxes, and so we need some interim measure that will keep property taxes down until we get to the larger school districts that are envisioned in the bill,” Sharpe says.

There isn't a lot of time for lawmakers to design a new capping mechanism. The entire bill needs the approval of the full House by the end of the month if it's going to have a chance to be considered in the Senate this year.

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