Commentary

December 20, 2016

The Honorable Rebecca Holcombe

Secretary, VT Agency of Education

Mr. Stephan Morse

Chair, VT State Board of Education

219 North Main Street, Suite 402

Barre, Vermont 05679

 

Dear Secretary Holcombe and Chairman Morse,

I am writing today to provide Public Comment on the Proposed Rules (3400) that would govern the development of “Alternative Structures” under Act 46.  Specifically, I have very serious concerns about the rules as they are being proposed, as I believe they are in conflict with what the legislative intent was in establishing the ability for districts to enter into an “Alternative Structure” under Act 46. 

In fact, these rules make it virtually impossible for any district to be approved as an “Alternative Structure” other than through geographic isolation.  I would go so far as to say that even if two districts have the required 1100 or more Average Daily Membership and meet the goals as established in Section 2 of Act 46, they would not be approved as an Alternative Structure under the rules as currently drafted. 

Proposed Rule 3440.3 – A proposal for an Alternative Structure shall …

3) Demonstrate that:

A)    A Preferred Structure is not “possible” or is not “the best model” to achieve the Goals in the Region [Stated in another way, that a Preferred Structure is not possible or practicable in the Region.]

B)     The Proposal is the “best means” of meeting each of the Goals in the Region

C)     The Proposal ensures transparency and accountability for the member districts of the supervisory union and the public at large.

This is a complete overreach of rulemaking authority.  Nowhere in Act 46 does it state that an Alternative Structure proposal is dependent upon a demonstration that a Preferred Structure is not “possible” or is not the “best model.”  In fact, Act 46 makes clear in Section 5(c) that an Alternative Structure is an option for districts as long as the following is met:

“1) the member districts consider themselves to be collectively responsible for the education of all prekindergarten through grade 12 students residing in the supervisory union;

2) the supervisory union operates in a manner that maximizes efficiencies through economies of scale and the flexible management, transfer, and sharing of nonfinancial resources among the member districts;

3) the supervisory union has the smallest number of member school districts practicable, achieved wherever possible by the merger of districts with similar operating and tuitioning patterns; and

4) the combined average daily membership of all member districts is not less than 1,100.”

To reiterate, nowhere in the legislation is there a requirement that a district demonstrate that a Preferred Structure is not “possible” or is not the “best model,” so the Proposed Rule is an overreach of rulemaking authority.

Proposed Rule 3430.4 – A Preferred Structure may not be “possible or the best model” to achieve the Goals throughout the State. [Act 46, Sec. 5(c)].  This acknowledges that local anomalies of demography and geography make Preferred Structures difficult to achieve in some locations.

Again, the Vermont Legislature made clear in Section 5 of Act 46 that Alternative Structures would be allowed.  In fact, the law specifically states: An Education District as envisioned in subsection (b) of this section may not be possible or the best model to achieve Vermont’s education goals in all regions of the State.”

But, in the Proposed Rules, you jump far ahead of this statute in limiting the instances in which the Preferred Structure “may not be possible or the best model.”  Rule 3430.4 declares that: “This acknowledges that local anomalies of demography and geography make Preferred Structures difficult to achieve in some locations.” 

While demography and geography were some of the reasons the Legislature wanted to ensure the Alternative Structure option, they were not the only reasons.  And it is simply inaccurate to imply that that was an exhaustive list.

Proposed Rule 3430.8 – The final Statewide Plan shall incorporate a proposal for an Alternative Structure only if the Proposing District or Districts demonstrate that the proposal “is the best means of meeting the (Goals) in a particular region; and …ensures transparency and accountability.” [Act 46, Sec. 8(b)]

Note that throughout the text of Act 46, the Legislature talks about and refers to “particular region(s).”  And, note that through the Proposed Rules, the draft refers to these same items as simply “Region(s).” 

While some may consider this semantics, the distinction is absolutely critical.  In fact, I believe the change is designed to broaden the term to ensure greater subjectivity for the State Board of Education when considering the approval of Alternative Structures.

Specifically, in Proposed Rule 3410.8, it states: “Region” is not defined by current supervisory union boundaries, but should be identified based on a common-sense view of districts in and outside the current supervisory union.”

Simply put, this is far too subjective for a district to depend on when proposing an Alternative Structure.

Proposed Rule 3430.9 – A proposal by one or more Remaining Districts for an Alternative Structure is the final option, after all other opportunities for merger and collaboration have been considered and determined not to be possible or the best option for meeting the Goals in the Region

Once again, this proposal does not accurately reflect the legislative intent in Act 46.  Our intent was to ensure that Alternative Structures were a viable option, and one that local communities could explore and develop, as long as they meet the established goals.  Indeed, maybe some in the legislature believe that the one-size fits all approach is the only approach local communities should take, but the intent of the Legislature as a whole was to ensure the option is obtainable for those communities that choose to do so.

 

Act 46 has outlined clearly its goals in Section 2:

1.     To encourage and support local decisions and actions that:

a.     Provide substantial equity in the quality and variety of educational opportunities statewide;

b.     Lead students to achieve or exceed the State’s Education Quality Standards, adopted as rules by the State Board of Education at the direction of the General Assembly

c.     Maximize operational efficiencies through increased flexibility to manage, share, and transfer resources, with a goal of increasing the district-level ratio of students to full-time equivalent staff

d.     Promote transparency and accountability; and

e.     Are delivered at a cost that parents, voters, and taxpayers value.

As long as the community proposing an Alternative Structure can clearly demonstrate that it will meet those goals, the proposal should be easily approved.  The hoops to jump through and bars to jump over as proposed currently seem more like a barrier to the establishment of an Alternative Structure than a roadmap for such establishment. 

For all of these reasons, I request that the Proposed Rules 3400 be simplified, and that it be made clear that the underlying issue that will determine the approval of Alternative Structures will be whether or not the Goals outlined in Section 2 of Act 46 will be met.

 

Sincerely,

 

Heidi E. Scheuermann

State Representative, Stowe

 

May 17, 2016

The gavel fell on the Vermont General Assembly's 2015-2016 Legislative Biennium late Friday, May 6, 2016.  And, while there are usually myriad opinions of how successful legislative sessions are, there is not much disagreement about this one being one of the least productive in recent memory.

This is especially the case in my view when considering the lack of any substantive measure at all that would have helped to grow our state’s economy.

So what did we do?

April 21, 2016

With just a few weeks remaining until the 2015-2016 Legislative Biennium concludes, various items are still being developed in both the House and Senate.  Unfortunately, none of the items being considered will put us back on a path of fiscal responsibility and real economic growth.

The Fiscal Year 2017 budget that passed the House raises General Fund spending by 4% this year, meaning a Comparable Annual Growth Rate over the last five years of 4.6%.    As most of us clearly understand, this is continues to be well above both the rate of inflation and the underlying economic growth in Vermont.

In fact, the total budget – excluding federal funds and education spending – is $2.45 billion in FY 2017.  This is an over $575 million increase since FY 2011.  And, how do we pay for this spending?  By instituting additional and higher taxes and fees on Vermont families and businesses over the last six years.  The tax and fee increases being proposed this year total $48 million, making a two-year total increase of $96.7 million.

April 7, 2016

I am pleased to report that a bill designed to increase housing opportunities for the Vermont workforce is progressing very well in the House of Representatives.  In fact, it is expected to come up for action this week on the House floor.

The bill, H. 865, does two things.  First, it would put into place pilot projects that would help fund infrastructure improvements in municipalities to support the development of workforce housing.  And, second, it would extend the very successful First Time Homebuyer Down Payment Assistance Program to ensure it becomes the revolving loan fund that we envisioned when we began the program last year.

March 24, 206

As much of the focus of activities in Montpelier are on the budget and taxes, I am very proud to report that the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, on which I serve, passed out a bill, unanimously, that clarifies the laws governing employers, employees, and independent contractors with regard to workers' compensation and unemployment insurance. 

Along with colleagues from across the political spectrum, I have fought diligently throughout the years, to do something that would ensure the many protections for workers historically in place are maintained, while ensuring that we position our state as a place in which the new, independent and collaborative workforce is encouraged to grow and invest.

The bill that was voted out of our committee, H. 867, does just that.

March 3, 2016

As the Vermont Legislature breaks for Town Meeting Day recess after eight weeks of work, it is appropriate that we ask ourselves what we have accomplished for the people of Vermont in that time.

February 18, 2016

Jessica is a website developer.  After years of working for a company, she leaves that employ to open her own website development business.  After some time, she finds great success in obtaining contracts with various entities to do website design work.  One of these entities is her former employer.  That former employer contracts with her to do work on their website, newsletter, and blog.  The only direction she receives from that company is a deadline to get the job done, and the content that is to be used.  How and when the items are completed are her decisions. 

Do Vermonters know that because Jessica had done this type of work for her former employer in the past, she must be classified as an employee of the company now? 

Do Vermonters know that, although Jessica has hung her own shingle and contracts with several other entities, that she cannot be considered an independent contractor in this case?

This is the new dilemma we are facing as a state.

February 4, 2016

One month into the legislative session, with most school budgets already completed and ready for March Town Meeting Day, a legislative “fix” to the spending caps included in last year’s education reform law, Act 46, passed the House last week.  While Governor Shumlin and the Senate had preferred an all-out repeal of the allowable growth percentage provisions of Act 46, the final agreement increased that allowable percentage by .9%, and lowered the penalties for exceeding the percentage to 40% of every dollar spent over the threshold.

Meanwhile, the two issues with the new law about which I have heard most – the 900-pupil threshold in the Preferred Governance Structure defined in Act 46, and the impossibility of many communities that have enjoyed a long tradition of school choice to continue that tradition if they want to merge with another district – have yet to be discussed in any depth. 

I was, therefore, pleased to be invited into the House Education Committee to present two pieces of legislation I’ve introduced to address both of these challenges.

January 21, 2016

Frustrations are mounting in Montpelier, and throughout the state, over the real-life consequences of the ill-advised and poorly thought out education reform law passed last year (Act 46).  While the intention of the law was clearly to merge school districts and eliminate much of the little amount of local control we have left as communities, many other challenges are now rearing their heads.

Just seven months ago, Governor Shumlin and legislative leaders were patting themselves on the back for the excellent work they did on education reform.  Now, however, that tone has changed.  The challenges resulting from the spending threshold has seen the Governor call for a repeal and others for significant modifications to it, and the disingenuous assertion that school choice would be maintained under merged districts still have communities reeling.

Now, a new wrinkle has emerged.