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How an education bill could change your Town Meeting Day

Classroom without children at school's out. The desks are in rows and you can read the names of the children on the front of the desks drawn in multicolour. Photo was taken in elementary school in Quebec Canada.
Lawmakers are tweaking Act 127, an education funding law designed to increase spending in low-income districts with higher-needs students, and tamp down per-pupil costs in more affluent communities.

One topic seems to be dominating the conversation at the Vermont statehouse and many dinner tables—property taxes.

Property taxes were estimated to rise by an average of nearly 20 percent next year because of school budget proposals. In reaction to this estimate, lawmakers are scrambling to rewrite the state’s education tax laws to induce some districts to go back to the drawing board and cut spending. If this happens, some school districts may decide to postpone the vote on their budgets to later this spring, past the normal Town Meeting Day vote.

Vermont Secretary of State Sarah Copeland Hanzas, whose office manages voter registration and election procedures, joined Vermont Edition Tuesday to discuss the potential changes to Town Meeting Day. She has been helping town and city clerks navigate these potential changes to their ballots. In some cases, ballots are already out in the hands of voters.

"You know, I wanted to say that this was a curveball, but it's a little more than a curveball," she said, adding that each school district can decide how it wants to handle these changes. "Any individual school district board might vote to go forward with their election of officers, but delay the vote on the budget so that they can reword and recalculate based on what's coming out of the Legislature."

The municipal clerks who are preparing to conduct these elections have to wait and see what their school district plans to do in order to know whether they're printing a whole new ballot and whether they're conducting a new election on another day. If ballots are already out in the hands of voters, and the school district wants to delay only the budget vote, then voters can go ahead and return the rest of that ballot.

Secretary Copeland-Hanzas said that if people have any questions about their Town Meeting Day ballots, they should contact their local clerk. "Chances are she or he will know what to expect and will be able to give folks advice on on whether to return that school district ballot or whether they'll receive a new one," she said.

Lawmakers are tweaking Act 127, an education funding law passed in 2022 that went into effect this year. The law was designed to increase spending in low-income districts with higher-needs students, and tamp down per-pupil costs in more affluent communities. A transition mechanism built into Act 127 capped increases to the homestead property tax rates at 5 percent for the first five years—for all school districts. The modeling behind Act 127 was done in 2019 and didn't include some of the current inflationary pressures on school districts.

Sue Ceglowski, executive director of the Vermont School Board Association, said the past couple weeks have been challenging for Vermont's 122 school boards and many are currently deciding whether they will go forward with their budget votes on Town Meeting Day or delay them.

"I think there are some districts that looked at the 5 percent cap [in property taxes in Act 127], and considered their circumstances, the needs of their districts — possibly looking at facilities needs that have gone unfunded for several years because of lack of school construction aid, things like that — and may have added some things to their budgets because of that," Ceglowski said. "They may be going back and taking a second look at that."

Ceglowski also said personnel expenses might be an area school boards reexamine, since 80 to 90 percent of a school board's budget are in salaries and benefits.

Broadcast at noon Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Tedra joined Vermont Public as a producer for Vermont Edition in January 2022 and now serves as the Managing Editor and Senior Producer. Before moving to Vermont, she was a journalist in New York City for 20 years. She has a master’s degree in journalism from New York University.