The Legislature will be back in the Statehouse in about three weeks. The session will start with Gov. Phil Scott’s state of the state address, and then the real work will begin.
One issue that is gathering steam as we head toward the end of the year is education funding reform. It seems that every three to four years, something comes along that makes the Legislature take a long look at some tweaks of the education system. In 2015, it was Act 46, which set off a wave of school district mergers around the state. As part of that bill, school districts were offered graduated property tax incentives for merging. Now the piper is due to be paid, as those merger incentives begin to kick in and districts that met the Act 46 criteria begin to reap those reductions in rates.
Except, wait a minute, those savings may not actually be there. Why? Because with so many districts merging, property tax payers in Vermont are currently looking at an 8- to 9-cent increase in rates. Ironically, that looming increase is just about what the incentives for Act 46 mergers average out to. So, while there were incentives, there may not be much in the way of actual savings, even for those taxpayers whose districts merged. As for those school districts that haven’t merged, well, somebody has to pay for all those incentives.
So here we are, a few weeks out from the start of the Legislature’s 2018 session, and the groundswell is rising for changes in how funding for primary and secondary education takes place.
Nowhere is that swell for change larger than right here in the Deerfield Valley. The town of Whitingham, along with a resident and a student in the town, has filed suit claiming the current funding school mechanisms are unconstitutional. The suit pins much of its argument on the disparity between small and large school districts, and how current law fails to compensate for the inherent differences and penalizes districts for things out of its control.
How far that lawsuit goes remains to be seen. But what we’ve already seen is that the suit has gotten the attention of a number of legislators. That’s good, and we hope it makes more than just our local senators and representatives realize how inequitable the current funding system is.
To really sink in with legislators, the public has to be involved, too. While the lawsuit should be taken seriously, legislators also take seriously a room full of people seeking change. That is one of the great things about democracy in Vermont. People can effect change. But they have to ask for it.
To that end, on Tuesday evening the Twin Valley School Board, along with the Wilmington and Whitingham boards, is hosting a meeting with area legislators to talk about the funding problems. No doubt the lawsuit will be talked about as well.
We encourage voters from all area towns to attend. The issue will taken more seriously if a large number of people turn out, and call for change. It is important that people go. If Whitingham hopes to succeed in their lawsuit, legislators need to see that there is support for change. While that won’t help them win the lawsuit, it will help legislators understand the depth of frustration people feel, and may help get new laws written that reflect the reality of the cost of education in small towns.
That meeting will be held at Twin Valley Elementary School, starting at 7 pm, on Tuesday, December 19.
When Scott delivers his address at the beginning of the session, we have no doubt he will talk about the need for changes in the ongoing effort aimed at reducing the costs of education in Vermont. Tuesday’s meeting can be a start toward those changes.