Revisiting education funding and Act 46 thresholds

By Rep. Kate Webb

As stated in my last report here, Act 46 passed last year, making a variety of changes to education governance, spending and funding. Our 19th century governance system was no longer meeting the needs of 21st century learners scattered throughout the state. Our twenty-year old funding and spending system was not keeping pace with the conflict between declining school-age population and increasing costs. Over the summer and fall, communities around the state began having conversations about this and now a number of communities are planning to merge their schools into larger, more efficient districts. These mergers are expected to improve access to resources and increase efficiencies.

One aspect of Act 46 required schools to stay under a certain spending threshold or face a penalty. While more than half of Vermont school boards managed to stay under the threshold, others complained that costs beyond their control, such as a dramatic rise in health care premiums, were making it impossible to do so without significant loss in program. The House Education Committee unanimously agreed to add .9% to those thresholds. This encouraged a limit on spending but gave school boards a bit more breathing room.

Things began to unravel on Jan. 15 when it became clear that the Agency of Education (AOE) had set the thresholds based on a misinterpretation of the new law. When the AOE sent out a corrected copy of thresholds, school boards around the state either celebrated the change or found that this new threshold totally upset budgets that were nearly complete. While Shelburne would not have faced a penalty with the old threshold, it certainly would with the new, unfortunately based on previous good financial decisions made by our school board to reduce debt.

Last week, the Senate voted 29-1 to address this problem with a simple repeal of the thresholds. Repeal did not sit well in the House of Representatives where a majority wanted to keep some kind of restraint on spending.

I spent quite a bit of time in the House Education Committee last week as they worked and reworked the threshold bill to accommodate those wanting full repeal of thresholds with those wanting to leave them untouched. Many quiet heroes working outside party rhetoric found a way to balance the call from school boards trying to balance budgets with taxpayers calling for relief. A compromise was set.

This bill was slated to be up for debate on Wednesday, Jan. 27. At the time of this writing, its fate is still unknown. Whatever passes will then head back to the Senate for either agreement, further amendment, or sent into a committee of conference to reconcile differences. School boards around the state are watching closely as the deadline to finalize budgets and get them to print is fast approaching.

I am most easily reached by email at kwebb@leg.state.vt.us and secondarily by phone or text at (802) 233-7798. I am usually able to meet in person on Mondays and Saturdays by appointment.

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