House advances schools finance bill
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | April 25,2013
MONTPELIER — After watching the cost of public education nearly double over the past decade, House lawmakers Wednesday made a bid for tighter control over spending decisions traditionally left to local school boards.
A late-session push to curb the rise in education costs culminated with broad bipartisan approval of a bill that would, among other things, lower the threshold at which schools suffer financial penalties for “excess” spending.
The legislation also seeks to cut down on the staff-related expenses that account for nearly 80 percent of school costs. As early as 2016, under the bill passed Wednesday, districts could see penalties assessed if they exceed minimum staff-to-student ratios.
“I’ve been in this building for five years … and seen probably a school library’s worth of education studies,” said Rep. Adam Greshin, a Warren independent. “And this is the first time in that period I’ve had the opportunity to vote out a bill that stands an excellent chance of moderating the growth in education spending.”
The cost-containment initiative from the Democrat-controlled House even won the support of the Republican minority, which has long railed against the opposition for its alleged unwillingness to undertake serious education funding reform.
“This bill actually could have a positive effect,” House Minority Leader Don Turner said after the 110-24 vote on the floor.
But Turner and other Republicans who voted ‘yes’ said their support for the bill shouldn’t be construed as an endorsement of the Democrats’ approach to the problem.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, a Stowe Republican, said the bill doesn’t even begin to address the structural flaws in a funding system that has seen school costs soar even as student enrollment declines.
“Instead of actual reform of the system itself, we are nibbling around the edges once again,” said Scheuermann, one of the 33 Republicans who voted yes.
“Year after year, we’ve heard desperate pleas for meaningful education reform,” she said. “And year after year, we ignore them. It is time to be bold. And this is anything but.”
House Speaker Shap Smith encountered more opposition to the bill among members of his own caucus, where more liberal Democrats found fault not only with encroachment on local control, but in provisions that would reduce tax subsidies for people making less than $90,000 per year. Lawmakers would redirect that money to lower the tax bills of higher income-earners.
“What this bill represents is a continued attack against an endangered species in this state, and that’s low-income working people,” said Rep. Paul Poirier, a Barre City independent.
Rep. David Sharpe, a Bristol Democrat and ranking member on the House Committee on Ways and Means, defended the move. He said the taxpayers who enjoy the “income sensitivity” accorded to households below that threshold will see their tax bills rise on average by less than 1 percent next year. The people above that figure, meanwhile, will see their obligations climb by nearly 7 percent.
Sharpe said the Legislature has long taken steps to cushion the impact on those below $90,000. He said it’s time now to “restore some balance” by making allowances for people making between $90,000 an $135,000, a group that pays the highest percentage of its annual income in property taxes.
House leaders made the bill more politically palatable Wednesday by dropping a provision that, over time, would have eliminated a grant program that metes out nearly $8 million annually to small schools. Critics of the program say it abets the spending problem by keeping alive tiny schools that wouldn’t otherwise be financially viable.
Lobbyists representing the teachers union, school boards, and superintendents have all raised concerns about the bill, particularly the provision on staff-to-student ratios they say could have impacts on the quality of education delivered to Vermont students.
But with statewide property tax rates on pace to rise by more than 10 percent over the next two years, Sharpe said action is needed.
“I don’t want to go home saying I did nothing. Maybe you do,” Sharpe said in opposition to an amendment that would have gutted the bill. “Does this bill do enough? Probably not. … But this was a difficult process … to bring this bill forward.”
The legislation will go up for a final vote in the House today before being sent to the Senate, where lawmakers will have only three weeks before the session is scheduled to adjourn.
Senate President John Campbell said he’s eager to take over the baton, and that the property tax issue is urgent enough to warrant quick action on the legislation by his chamber.