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Shumlin Wants Thorough Review Of Education Financing

Gov. Peter Shumlin says he plans to launch a top to bottom review of the way that Vermont finances public education.

Shumlin says changes need to be made in response to a steady reduction in student enrollment and the continuing escalation of education costs.

Over the past few decades, there have been a number of different school funding formulas in Vermont. Shumlin and a group of legislative leaders are asking if the time has come to adopt some major changes to the state’s current system known as Act 68.

In 1997, lawmakers passed Act 60 after the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the system in place at the time was unconstitutional because it didn’t afford all students equal educational opportunities.

Then in 2003, Act 68 was passed. That law made additional changes to the system that allowed some Vermonters to pay their school taxes based on their income.

Earlier this week, Tax Commissioner Mary Peterson estimated that it will take a seven cent increase in the statewide property tax rate to pay the state’s share of next year’s school budgets.

The governor says he’ll ask a group of educators, lawmakers, community leaders and experts on school financing to review the current system to see if there are ways to improve it.

“What I’m going to ask us to do in light of the fact that we have dwindling enrollments, student count is dropping, and property taxes keep going up costs keep going up and ask if there are ways or changes that we could make to it that would help us to contain costs in partnership with local communities,” Shumlin said. “We’re going to do that in January. I don’t know what the outcome will be but we’ve got to try.”

"My view is that we should look at everything about Act 60 and 68, and ask are there ways that we can make improvements" - Governor Peter Shumlin

And Shumlin says he enters this review with no specific solutions in mind.

“My view is that we should look at everything about Act 60 and 68, and ask 'are there ways that we can make improvements to help contain costs but still meet our goal of ensuring that we’re spending enough on education to continue to have one of the best public education systems in the country?'” said Shumlin. “So I don’t have a proscribed solution, and frankly, the discouraging part is, I don’t think anyone else does either.”

Households with incomes under roughly $92,000 pay their school taxes based on a percentage of their income not the value of their property. It’s a system known as income sensitivity.

Shumlin wants to know if households that qualify for this program are more likely to support higher school budgets.

“I think it’s worth looking at. I mean, there’s no question that one of the criticisms of the current system is that when you vote a school budget if you are income sensitized you’re not as impacted to the increase as other people might be,” said Shumlin. “Now there are people who say that’s absolute baloney so I think that is the reasons we need to go in with an open mind.”

Shumlin says he’ll ask lawmakers to consider the recommendations of the task force just as soon as the group is able to draft some specific changes to the current system.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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