By Heidi E. Scheuermann
As Vermont students settle into their classrooms this year, I have read in report after report the frustrations and anger Vermont teachers, parents and families are experiencing as a result of the education reform law, Act 46, passed by the legislature this year.
This law forces the elimination of local school districts and boards by merging them into larger districts of an arbitrary set pupil count number (900). It will most likely wipe out Vermont’s 150-year tradition of school choice for many of Vermont’s 90-plus tuitioning towns. And, it applies a spending cap that, in the opinion of Vermont’s chapter of the ACLU, violates the equity provision of the Vermont Supreme Court’s 1997 Brigham decision. Most egregiously, though, it does absolutely nothing to address our exorbitantly high property taxes.
Throughout the 2014 campaign season, Vermonters clamored for property tax relief. And candidate after candidate promised that it was their number one priority. But, rather than embrace a solution that would alleviate property taxes, and return local decision-making authority and local control of our children’s education to those who know them best, Montpelier chose to consolidate more power over the education of our children into the hands of the state.
While I passionately raised these concerns as the legislation was being debated, the legislative majority was more intent on creating the false appearance that they had listened to Vermonters’ pleas and were addressing them. Obvious and serious issues with this law were simply dismissed. Now, I can’t help but wonder if any of my colleagues in the legislature regret their vote in favor of Act 46.
Did they realize that Montpelier would be exerting even more control than they already have over our local schools and districts? As if to ensure that the crisis not go to waste, the legislature wasted no time in using Vermonters’ distress over high property taxes to consolidate more power in Montpelier over local decision making and local tax dollars, while doing nothing to solve the underlying problem.
For example, in addition to the already overly prescriptive dictates put onto our local schools from Montpelier (it has even gone so far now as to tell the schools what kind of cleaning products they must purchase), now if a supervisory union or one of its member districts has a different idea of what might best serve its students and refuses to comply with certain provisions of the law, Montpelier has the authority to raise all of the property tax rates within the districts of the supervisory union by 5 percent each year they are deemed out of compliance.
In addition, while this is a longtime goal of many in the legislature, did all who voted in favor of Act 46 realize the law would most likely eliminate school choice for many Vermonters?
Just recently the State Board of Education Chairman made clear that larger consolidated districts cannot have some communities that offer choice and others that don’t.
Indeed, some argue that districts have a choice of whether or not to merge into these larger districts. But that is not the case. In fact, if districts do not merge by 2018, the State Board of Education has the authority to, and will most likely, commence with forced consolidations.
Others argue that they can simply merge with other choice districts. That is also an extremely difficult proposition for many, as most in Montpelier well know.
The proponents of Act 46 claim that a primary purpose of this law was to create more and better opportunities for our children. If that is the case, why are we eliminating opportunities available to Vermont children? Why would we not be expanding them?
Finally, and as importantly, property taxes on Vermonters under Act 46 will continue to increase. In many cases, significantly.
Simply put, Act 46 is the product of politics — doing something for the sake of appearing to do something. It is not a solution to our property tax crisis, nor is it the creation of more and better opportunities that the proponents claim.
Heidi Scheuermann represents Stowe in the Vermont House of Representatives.