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

Controversy Continues Around Local School Spending Caps

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Legislation that would cap local school spending for the next three years has drawn sharp criticism from Vermont's teachers union.

A major battle has erupted at the Statehouse over legislation that would cap local school spending for the next three years. Backers of the plan say it's needed to provide property tax relief, but opponents argue it undermines budget decisions made by local voters.

The controversial cap is part of a bill that calls for larger school districts in Vermont over the next four years.

Spending on local school budgets would be capped at between 1.5 and 4 percent a year. High spending towns would have a lower growth rate and low spending towns would have a higher cap.

"We're trying to find a path through [the concerns of different groups], and that's not easy." - Bristol Rep. Dave Sharpe, House Education committee chairman

Bristol Rep. Dave Sharpe, the chairman of the House Education committee, says the cap is an effort to balance the needs of several different groups.

"All of us have been hearing from school board members and superintendents and teachers across the state that they're concerned,” Sharpe says. “And on the other hand, we're hearing from voters that are concerned about their property taxes and how expensive it has become to support schools. So we're trying to find a path through, and that's not easy." 

Some House members want the bill to include exemptions to the cap for emergency situations like a roof collapsing. Sharpe says adding exemptions has to be done very carefully.

"Pretty soon, you put enough exemptions in there and you have no cap,” Sharpe says. “So that's a big concern." 

Vermont's teachers union, the Vermont-NEA, strongly opposes the cap. Spokesperson Joel Cook says it will hurt local schools.

"As a means of curtailing spending, it certainly can be effective, but in an environment where people pay lip service to improving the quality of education there's no place for caps." - Vermont-NEA spokesperson Joel Cook

"As a means of curtailing spending, it certainly can be effective, but in an environment where people pay lip service to improving the quality of education there's no place for caps,” Cook says.

And Cook says it's wrong for the state to mandate spending levels for local communities.

"Telling a community that votes in favor of an amount higher than the cap that their vote is a failure smacks of some overreaching, I think, on the part of the General Assembly,” Cook says.

The House is scheduled to debate this issue on Wednesday, and as part of that discussion, lawmakers are expected to consider an amendment that would eliminate all caps on local school budgets.

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