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Two Southern Vermont Towns Consider Challenging Montpelier Over Education Funding

Howard Weiss-Tisman
The Wilmington School Board listens to voters criticize the state's education funding formula at Town Meeting last week.

The Twin Valley School District might go to court to fight the state's education funding formula.Whitingham and Wilmington formed a joint district in 2012, and both towns voted down their school budgets on Town Meeting Day. And some residents say it might be time to make a larger statement about how Vermont pays for its schools.

The two towns formed the joint district long before Act 46 jump-started the conversation about school district consolidation. But after a few years of operating the Twin Valley school district, residents in both towns say the experiment isn't working.

Voters there say they're ready to send a message to Montpelier about what they're calling an unfair education funding system.

Tuesday on Vermont Edition: Education Funding: How It Works, Where The Money Goes

At Wilmington's Town Meeting, Bob Mcconnin said the state's school funding formula is hurting taxpayers.

"I think we've gotten to a point where this is a crisis," Mcconnin said. "I personally believe that voting down the budget would be the best way to let the Legislature know that they don't know what they're doing.  And that this has to be addressed immediately. And I think by passing the budget, we just pass on the problem."

Former Wilmington Rep. Ann Manwaring believes that Vermont's education financing system hurts small schools.

"This finance formula is driven by economy-of-scale thinking," Manwaring says. "Ultimately, if you carry that out far enough, it will indeed kill off rural schools. That's its impact."


The quiet revolution brewing in the Deerfield Valley stems from this year's proposed school budgets.
Education spending for the joint Twin Valley district was cut, but taxes in both towns were still projected to jump by double digits.

And the tax increase is directly related to how Vermont's complicated school funding formula works.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Stacks of the Twin Valley School District annual report were available to voters at town meeting in Wilmington.

Manwaring, who's now a Wilmington Select Board member, says people should prepare for an expensive and lengthy fight, if the two towns decide to challenge the statewide education tax.

"Maybe we are moving closer and closer to a legal action," Manwaring said at Town Meeting. "The question then becomes — and this is for the lawyers in the room here to think about — what is the legal theory that we could bring? I don't know what it is. I'm not a lawyer. But I think we might be moving in that kind of direction. And I would say to all of you in the room here, that if we start on this path, all of you have got to be in the game with the boards that might bring this together."

Vermont's statewide education tax was put in place on the premise that a dollar spent in Burlington or Stowe should also benefit a kid in a smaller or poorer rural school district. And the watchword is equity.

"Maybe we are moving closer and closer to a legal action. The question then becomes ... What is the legal theory that we could bring?" — Ann Manwaring, Wilmington Select Board member

But Wilmington school board member Therese Lounsbury says just the opposite is happening.

In a statewide funding formula, larger districts can more easily absorb swings in enrollment. Lounsbury says smaller districts, meanwhile, have to choose between eye-popping tax increases or cuts to programs that hurt students.

"What's happening is they keep putting these Band-Aids on everything," Lounsbury said. "It's a Band-Aid, and guess who's getting the feel of when that Band-Aid gets ripped off? That's us. But it's too many Band-Aids. It's time to make a change in the formula."

On Town Meeting Day, Whitingham voted to put $100,000 in a special fund in case the two towns decide to open a court case over the statewide education tax.

Both towns will meet on March 22 to plot their next move.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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