Vermont Looks to District Consolidation, Overhaul of Tax Rates

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The House Education Committee has released a draft proposal that would see significant change come to the structure of public schools in Vermont, including the merging of school districts and an overhaul of the education property tax rates system.

The bill would see school districts that currently hold the same supervisory union combine to become one district in July 2018. The result of this step would be larger supervisory districts.

School districts would be able to retain their current structuring so long as the school board, voters and the state Board of Education all agree that it would be better to keep things the way they are. Districts are also welcome to present their own governance ideas for state approval.

Committee chair Dave Sharpe said he “felt pressure” to get the 27-page education bill out, adding that while he does expect amendments to the proposal, he believes it will reach the House floor by mid-March.

“There are some provisions in here that will bend the cost curve, in my opinion,” said Sharpe, D-Bristol. “It addresses, I hope, the desire — many of the suggestions we got were about some form of larger school districts.”

The bill could also see a simplification of education property taxes in the state and more money directly tied to per-student funding, writes April Burbank for The Burlington Free Press.

The current system, which makes use of multiple variables that are changed by lawmakers each year, has come under criticism by many who believe there is not enough communication on local spending decisions.  The new system would change that to meet an example that says state officials would make public the amount of per-student spending that could come from a $1.00 homestead tax rate.

“If, then, at town meeting the town wants to vote for $12,000 in spending per student, they know they are going to be 20 percent above that baseline, or $1.20,” said Peter Griffin, a lawyer with the Office of Legislative Council.

Certain portions of the current formula would remain, including penalties for over-spending.  In addition, the system would continue to account for income sensitivity.

While House Speaker Shap Smith has not yet had a chance to properly look at the bill, he referred to it as “a way to get the conversation started.”

After working with a group to create three major education proposals last year, Smith has taken a special interest in education finance and government reform.  Upon being asked if he would like to see a bill created that significantly changes the education system, he replied, “This, in and of itself, will be pushing the boundaries for many of the people involved. So I think this strikes the right balance.”

According to House Republican Leader Don Turner, the bill is still missing some important pieces.  For example, he would like to see the student-to-teacher ratio kept low.  Turner added that he would like to see a bill that contains spending while at the same time changes financial structures.

The bill must still go through two more House committees before reaching the floor in early March.  It is likely to undergo significant changes in that time.