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Lawmakers slow down on education finance overhaul

A woman speaks while gesturing with one hand.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Rep. Emilie Kornheiser speaks after Gov. Phil Scott's budget address on Jan. 23, 2024.

Barely 48 hours after unveiling the outlines of a major education funding overhaul, lawmakers appear to be backtracking.

On Tuesday afternoon, the tax-writing Ways & Means Committee in the Vermont House took a first look at draft legislation that, starting in 2027, would have dramatically curtailed local control in school budgeting.

But just two days later, Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, the Brattleboro Democrat who chairs the panel and put forward the proposal, announced to her committee that she no longer felt it was wise to move so quickly.

“It feels to me — tell me if anyone disagrees — that that is a very short turnaround,” she said Thursday.

While the bill had tried to make clear that the two-year runaway would leave “a lot of space for discussion,” Kornheiser continued, she noted that lawmakers did not yet have a financial analysis available with which they might base their decision.

“I don't feel personally comfortable with even setting that in motion given that I have not seen the numbers yet myself — let alone all of us and the body politic,” she said.

Decisions about how much Vermont school districts spend are currently made locally, although school budgets are funded mostly by the state. School boards craft a proposed spending plan for the upcoming year, and, in the spring, put those budgets before local voters.

The legislation under discussion earlier this week would have transitioned Vermont to a system in which the state would simply send districts a base payment per student. Local voters would have been permitted to approve spending over these amounts, but would have paid a tax penalty in exchange. It's system common in other states, often referred to as a foundation formula.

The fast-moving legislation, which was initially set to receive a committee vote Friday, had been met with immediate pushback from the field.

The organizations representing Vermont’s superintendents, school boards, principals and business administrators submitted a joint statement to lawmakers, strongly opposing the bill.

“The compressed timeline for review and consideration is especially problematic given the complexity of the proposed changes both in terms of application and presumed results,” the associations wrote. “Furthermore, advancing legislation that has the potential to dramatically change the education funding system without transparent, accurate modeling, in our experience, is unprecedented.”

Legislators have spent much of this session confronting the rising cost of Vermont’s preK-12 system. Nearly a third of school budgets failed on Town Meeting Day as voters balked at property taxes that are forecast to rise by double digits.

While they may be slowing down, lawmakers are not entirely dropping the idea of a foundation formula, either. The committee will still pass a bill this year setting property taxes, and Kornheiser made clear that it would include language tasking a working group with advancing a plan to move Vermont to such a system.

Kornheiser's announcement was met with relief from fellow Democrats. But St. Johnsbury Rep. Scott Beck, a Republican, complained that the panel was abandoning its most meaningful attempt at cost-containment.

Kornheiser replied that it was still possible that the Legislature might enact such an overhaul by 2027, "if we're able to have the analysis that we need by next year. And if the field is sort of able to adjust to that."

"But I think the the scale of chaos in the field right now, with budget votes, I don't think any of the folks who are sort of working out there and developing budgets have the wherewithal to be able to really fully engage with this issue this year," she added. "Even though it might be what they need."

The tax-writing panel is still work shopping several short-term measures that might take the pressure off property taxes, including a surcharge on short-term rentals. And they continue to entertain more limited cost-containment measures, including the re-introduction of a tax penalty when districts spend over a certain threshold.

Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said education officials remained concerned about the Legislature’s direction.

While “we all need to be very focused on the cost of education and how to better manage it into the future,” he said, lawmakers are doing little to address the underlying causes of higher spending.

“When we look at the cost of education, we see more than school districts not budgeting in a manner that the General Assembly wishes it would. We see all parties involved. And quite honestly, the Legislature itself, taking actions that are adding to the cost of education,” Francis said.

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Lola is Vermont Public's education and youth reporter, covering schools, child care, the child protection system and anything that matters to kids and families. She's previously reported in Vermont, New Hampshire, Florida (where she grew up) and Canada (where she went to college).
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