New call to reform Vt. education funding system - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

New call to reform Vt. education funding system

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With Town Meeting Day a little more than a month away, communities across the state are presenting their school budgets to the public. And in some districts proposing double-digit budget increases, voters may not like what they see.

A new report released at the Vt. Statehouse proposes a call to action to fix an outdated education funding formula its authors say is in desperate need of updating, and where the cost burden over the last decade has steadily shifted to the property owners.

"The entire structure of how we finance and pay for education is the basic root of the problem. There's many school boards that have limited increases in spending but are still facing high tax increases," economist Art Woolf said.

The study, sponsored by the group Vermont Realtors, illustrates what its authors call a "financing system lacking effective cost control measures." That in an environment where total spending and per pupil spending have increased over the last 15 years, the student population has steadily declined. They propose but don't advocate a number of possible fixes, from the extreme of imposing caps on spending to reducing income sensitivity levels.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has pointed to high per pupil spending and for the most part has placed responsibility squarely in the hands of school boards.

"Well, you know we are all in this together. But to suggest the school boards don't play a role in helping to reduce property taxes, I think is missing the point," Shumlin, D-Vermont, said Jan. 20.

But when it comes down to Town Meeting Day, school advocates say their concern is that much of the nuances of state education funding formulas will be lost on voters and that educational programming will ultimately take the hit.

"The problem is that when voters choose to express their upset with the system by voting against the budget, what happens next is that the school board sits at a table and figures out what programs to cut or how to otherwise damage the quality of education," said Steve Dale of the Vt. Association of School Boards.

Dale says that if voters come to the conclusion that their school board's spending levels are appropriate and they're upset with the tax increases, they need to express their tax concerns to Montpelier.

Economist Art Woolf says one of the report's biggest revelations is that it's not just increased per pupil spending that's the problem.

"We've had one of the biggest increases in total spending on education of any state in the nation, so I think the total spending part is just as important as the decrease in enrollments that's driving the issue in Vermont," Woolf said.

Lawmakers looked at a major education financing study last year, but there was no definitive call to go forward.

"When they start seeing here that lots of school budgets are voted down, then they'll pay attention. But until then they they'll just hear it as more noise," said Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset.

Authors of the new study say it's a thorny issue, that calls for bold leadership.

Click here for the report on Vermont Education Funding System sponsored by the group Vermont Realtors.

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