Education funding, Act 46 expected to be focus of 2019 session

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) Education is among the most expensive services the state of Vermont provides and education issues tend to demand significant time from lawmakers every year -- this year will be no different.

Property taxes are always on the agenda, but funding for early and secondary education could complicate the discussion, as well as lawsuits filed against the state from communities unhappy with the forced merger of school districts.

"I don't think there's anything to fear because we know that the governor supports the youth and the students of this state as well as we do, so we'll see. Who knows," said Vermont-NEA President Don Tinney. He thinks Republican Gov. Phil Scott and the union can work together for Vermont students. "What I'm prepared to do is find common ground with the governor. I think that there are a lot of things that we can fight for together."

But he's also hoping to shift how public schools are paid for -- from the property tax to an income-based system. "That way, we know people pay their taxes based on their ability to pay and that all Vermonters pay their fair share, particularly the wealthiest Vermonters," Tinney said

That's where cooperation with Scott may stumble. The governor doesn't support shifting to an income tax.

In his first two years in office, Scott sought major education reforms, but was rebuffed by majority democrats. He says his proposals won't be as bold this year, but he will pitch a plan to use new online sales tax revenue to boost funding for early education.

Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding says money is desperately needed for higher education. "It's not like we're gonna disappear if the legislature, the governor and legislature, are not able to invest more appropriately in Vermont we will get smaller and it will be less affordable for Vermonters," Spaulding said.

That money would otherwise go to the education fund to pay for the K-12 system. Tinney says he supports the idea so there won't be any turf wars over the money. "Our students -- and they're all the same students, right -- are going on to the state college system," he said.

Meanwhile, another battle is brewing over school consolidation. Attorney Charles Merriman represents more than thirty school districts suing the state over forced school district mergers under Act 46. "Unfortunately, the bureaucrats in the form of the Agency of Education, they were so in zeal with the idea of consolidation that they ignored that very important democratic principal," Merriman said. He says he's hoping lawmakers will return with a message for the Agency of Education and the State Board of Education. "Look bureaucrats, that's not what we wanted. We wanted to move toward more efficient forms of governance, but not against the will of the people, so you screwed up and we're gonna fix this."

Property taxes aren't projected to rise much this year, but that won't really be known for a couple of months, until local districts vote on their budgets.