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.

 

First, House Bill 583 would eliminate the requirement that school districts throughout the state have a minimum of 900 students.  When Act 46 was being considered last year, it became clear that this number was simply an arbitrary number reached through a compromise between the House and Senate.

In my view, this is a mistake.

In the case of Stowe – arguably one of the most successful pre-K thru 12 education systems in the state – we currently have approximately 765 students enrolled.  And, as we are well aware, while other districts are finding declining enrollment each year, our numbers continue to increase each year.

Additionally, our per pupil cost for FY 2017 is expected to be $14,338 – an amount under the average per pupil spending throughout the state.

These two points illustrate very well that ours is an efficiently run district offering the highest quality education to our students, which is precisely what Act 46 is trying to do across the state.

This being the case, many of us in Stowe are wondering what we are doing wrong right now.  Why should we be required to change so drastically the structure of our education delivery system?

I believe Stowe is doing exactly what we should be doing with regard to our education, and H. 583 would ensure that we can continue to do so.

That same afternoon, Rep. Linda Martin (D-Wolcott) joined me to present our bill that would allow for a unified union school district to both operate a school and offer tuition for the same grades, simultaneously.

House Bill 579 is a bipartisan bill designed to ensure that what was thought to be the case when we passed Act 46 last year – that communities that currently enjoy school choice would be allowed to maintain that choice regardless of a merger – would, in fact, be the case.  Legislators from across the political spectrum were assured last year that school choice would be maintained, regardless of merger decisions, and many votes in support of the legislation were based on that assurance.

Unfortunately, it became apparent over the summer that if a choice district merged with a district that operated a school, they would, in most cases, lose their school choice; just as now is the case with the Elmore-Morristown merger.

H. 579, in contrast, would allow for that newly forming Elmore-Morristown district to both continue to operate the schools, and tuition students at the same time. 

To be clear, the environment in the committee room was a very unfriendly one in many ways.  Many members continue to stand firmly by Act 46, and are clearly defensive when challenged on some of the more controversial provisions.

That said, there did seem to be some interest on the part of a few, including Vice-Chair Bernie Juskiewicz (R-Jeffersonville) to explore both of these issues further, so I am hopeful we will see the Education Committee do so.

Finally, I simply want to add my support for the work the Stowe School Board, and the many parent, teacher, and community volunteers, are doing with regard to our community’s options under this new law.  The changes being dictated by Montpelier are significant changes, and will have a significant impact on the education our children receive, and on our community in general.  While some are advocating for a quick merger under Act 46, I commend the School Board and others for doing the due diligence the issue deserves.