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House And Senate At Odds Over School Spending Caps

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Angela Evancie
/
VPR/file
Senate Education committee chairwoman Ann Cummings thinks a spending cap will hurt smaller schools that don't have the flexibility to limit their expenses. Her counterparts in the Vermont House say the cap is a response to rising property taxes.

While the House and Senate agree on many issues in the education restructuring bill, they strongly disagree about a plan to cap school budgets to reduce property tax burdens.

One of the reasons that the House and Senate are at odds about spending caps is that the two chambers have very different expectations for the overall legislation.

The House bill calls for larger school districts to be formed over the next five years. Smaller districts that fail to act during this time period could be forced to merge with a neighboring district.

The bill also caps local school budgets in 2018 if statewide spending on education exceeds roughly 3 percent.

Bristol Rep. Dave Sharpe, the chairman of the House Education committee, says the cap is a direct response to the rising burden of property taxes.

"The concept in the House bill was in the short term we'd have some caps in place and in the long term these larger school districts will be more efficient and be able to save money and deliver better education in the out years,” Sharpe says.

"The concept in the House bill was in the short term we'd have some caps in place and in the long term these larger school districts will be more efficient and be able to save money and deliver better education." - Bristol Rep. Dave Sharpe, the chairman of the House Education committee

The Senate bill also calls for larger school districts, but the size is slightly smaller than the House plan. It also allows smaller districts to stay in operation if they provide a quality education at a reasonable cost.

Washington Sen. Ann Cummings, the chairwoman of the Senate Education committee, thinks the cap will hurt many smaller schools in Vermont because these schools don't have the flexibility to limit their expenses – particularly when personnel costs account for 80 percent of their budget.

“It can have a negative impact on the same schools that are already losing enough students,” Cummings says. “And we're not at all sure that we want to put those schools suddenly out of business. So we haven't looked at caps."

Cummings says the Senate bill is designed to deal with one overarching issue: how to help schools reduce costs at a time when Vermont's enrollment has declined by more 20,000 students over the past 15 years.

"It can have a negative impact on the same schools that are already losing enough students. And we're not at all sure that we want to put those schools suddenly out of business." - Washington Sen. Ann Cummings, chairwoman of the Senate Education committee

“That's the issue we've been looking at. We're trying to bend the cost curve so that it more nearly reflects the number of students we're educating,” Cummings says.

House Education chairman Sharpe says the disagreement over caps might have to be settled when a House Senate conference committee is appointed.

"We will work hard to get some sort of cost containment caps or otherwise back into the bill before it gets to the Governor's desk,” Sharpe says.

One possible compromise could involve additional penalties for towns that spend considerably more than the statewide per-student average.

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