House Ways and Means Committee bill H.889, recently passed by the full House, would raise the statewide property tax by 4 cents on residential property and 7.5 cents on nonresidential property. For those who pay based on income, which includes about two-thirds of Vermonters, the base rate would rise to 1.9 cents from 1.8 cents. But one of the biggest changes to education funding in the Ways and Means Committee’s bill would be the elimination of nearly $8 million in funding for the state’s small schools grant.
House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Rep. David Sharpe, of Bristol, says the committee recommended a higher increase on nonresidential property not to shift more of the burden of education funding on to non-homestead property owners, but to account for uneven increases in the past that favored those taxpayers. “One of the things we have learned is that, from 2009 to the present, on average the smallest increase in taxes has been on the non-homestead sector. The group that has seen the largest increase is the (non-income-sensitized) homestead rate payers. If we assume the balance was correct in 2009, we got closer to that this year.”
The bill would also phase out, over six years, funding of the state’s small schools grant, which provides supplemental funding for schools with fewer than 100 students or average class sizes of 20 or fewer. Several schools in the Deerfield Valley receive the grant, including Wardsboro, Dover, Halifax, Readsboro, and Stamford.
Under the plan approved by the House, small schools would continue to receive the grant for the next three years. The grant would be reduced by a third over each of the following three years.
Sharpe says the elimination of the small schools grant is a reaction to acts 153 and 156 – bills intended to encourage school and supervisory union consolidation. “We put subsidies in place for Act 153 to encourage schools to find some savings in economies of scale and shared resources,” Sharpe explains. “With the small schools grant, we’re creating an incentive not to merge. It seems a little incongruous.”
Sharpe says that, although no study has been introduced indicating that larger schools in Vermont will save money or improve education, the committee heard testimony supporting the notion. “We heard testimony that we have a student/teacher ratio that’s the lowest in the country,” Sharpe said. “And it contributes to the high cost of education.”
But local critics say the elimination of the grant is an attack on small schools and rural Vermonters; a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution that may or may not reduce cost or improve educational opportunity. “The problem with the legislation is that they’re trying to come up with a uniform solution to a problem that doesn’t have uniform answers,” says Twin Valley School Board member Phil Taylor. Taylor says consolidation was a good solution for Whitingham and Wilmington, but he says it’s not the best solution for every school. He says blaming small schools for the cost of education in Vermont is pointing the finger in the wrong direction.
“Small schools make up about 5% of total education spending in Vermont,” he says. “There’s no mathematical way anyone can say small schools are driving the cost of education.”
If larger schools result in savings from economies of scale, Taylor says, it’s not reflected in average per-pupil spending rates, which are about the same in small schools and large schools across the state. “If there’s any savings from economies of scale at larger schools, how is it they’re spending the same amount as smaller schools?”
Rep. John Moran, who also serves as a school board member in Wardsboro, says the towns in his district would lose $387,000 in education funding if the small schools grant is eliminated. For fiscal year 2013, the grants in his district included: Wardsboro, $82,568; Dover, $78,110; Readsboro, $94,293; and Stamford, $98,942. For Wardsboro and the other towns, Moran says the loss of funding would be devastating. “And they’re among the highest scoring schools in the state,” he notes.
Dover School Board member Laura Sibilia says the grant Dover receives is the equivalent to the cost of one teacher. In a small school like Dover School, losing a teacher would be devastating, she says. While the school has some combined grades at the upper elementary level, Sibilia says they’ve been advised against creating combined grades for younger students. She hints that the elimination of the grant, if passed and signed into law, could prompt action from the Dover School Board.
“It sounds like someone is intentionally denying us access to funds for our students,” Sibilia says. “Intentionally strangling or suffocating small schools to force them to shut down, and force consolidation. If you’re intentionally withdrawing resources, you’re denying a substantially equal education (the standard under the Vermont Supreme Court’s 1997 Brigham decision).”
Moran says the grant was part of the negotiation process over Act 60, the education funding law that initiated the use of a statewide property tax to fund education. “This would be reneging on that deal.”
There are exceptions to the loss of funding for schools that are geographically isolated, and Stamford is included in that list. But Moran says all of the towns in the district are geographically isolated. “Imagine trying to combine Wardsboro and Dover,” he says. The two towns are separated by elevation, so much so that early in the two towns’ history an area known as “South Wardsboro” broke away from Wardsboro to join with Dover. The reason? South Wardsboro residents couldn’t make it over the mountain to the annual Town Meeting in Wardsboro. Even today, the road can be treacherous in bad weather. “And it would be a long drive for students,” Moran says. “I don’t have any problem with voluntary consolidation, or with schools working cooperatively, but this is a top-down attempt to force a solution on us.”
The bill has been sent to the Senate, where it awaits further action. Moran says he’s hopeful that the elimination of the grant will be scrubbed from the bill. Most of the state’s 30 senators have small schools in their districts.