From the Statehouse

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By Tim Jerman

This session, I volunteered to return to the Education Committee after an eight-year absence because of the strong local reaction to property tax increases and education funding expressed during the campaign last fall. I know this will be a key issue, possibly THE key issue of the session. I’m encouraged by the process so far.

To date, the committee has taken tons of testimony/comments from advocates, the Secretary of Education, teachers, school boards, superintendents, business officers, students, parents and the general public. A committee bill has been drafted and is available on-line for comment, as is all of the testimony received. Google Vermont Legislature and go to the House Education Committee’s web page.

There is broad agreement in committee that Vermont has a serious education spending problem, caused primarily by the rapid decline in the number of students state-wide, which shows no sign of abating before 2030. Costs have continued to rise during this decline, wages have stagnated, and the homestead property tax has borne the brunt of the increase as other education revenue sources have not kept pace. Our 20th-Century delivery model is not sustainable.

The first draft of the bill contains several key provisions:

Moratorium: no new legislation that would create unfunded mandates for schools and raise property taxes.

Unified Education Districts: Reduces the number of districts statewide by requiring all supervisory unions to become unified education districts. Alternative proposals may be considered by the State Board of Education if they enhance student learning opportunities and control costs (Essex Junction, Essex and Westford are beginning to study a single district model now).

Yield Proposal: Simplifies the way we calculate and report homestead property tax so that decision-makers and the public know in advance how much a $1 base tax rate raises. Communities will know in advance if they are spending more or less than the state-wide average.

Ballot Language: Requires school budget warnings to include explicit disclosure of budget impact by identifying per pupil spending changes.

“Look back” Adjustment: Alters computation of income sensitivity adjustment so that it is based on current-year house value, tax rate and household income.

Special Ed Funding: Requires the Secretary of Education to develop alternative methods of delivery and payment for special education services.

Small schools: Phases out small school subsidies and hold harmless (phantom students) provisions with some exceptions.

There is much more, and there will be many adds, deletes and tweaks before we’re done. I expect several proposals to ratchet down the current high-spending threshold penalties to further discourage high local spending, and proposals to move some expenses from the Ed Fund to the General Fund, which would also reduce property taxes, and in some cases reduce overall costs to the system.

I should have lots more to report on this in my next update, and it will be extensively covered by the media on a daily basis. Whenever big change is being contemplated, there are perceptions of winners and losers, and a robust debate follows. I’ve been very encouraged by the tone of the discussion and its non-partisan nature so far.

By the time you read this, I’ll have again had the honor of nominating Adjutant General Steve Cray for election by the General Assembly. As promised, he has done a fantastic job for the Vermont National Guard and richly deserves re-election. As a member of the House leadership team, I’ve signed on to very few bills this year as a sponsor, but was proud to join Ron Hubert of Milton to promote “Jordan’s Law”, which will help to protect young people from criminal hazing such as occurred with the Milton High School football team by tightening up abuse reporting requirements to law enforcement. A local family has shown enormous courage and perseverance after suffering a tragic loss due to this incident and we need to do all we can to insure that it never happens again.

As always, please feel free to contact me at 878 2972, or TJerman@leg.state.vt.us on any issue.

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Tim Jerman represents Essex Junction in the Vermont House of Representatives.