Educators, legislators address school funding, consolidation

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2015 Telegraph Publishing LLC

About 120 people attended state Rep. Oliver Olsen’s Legislative Forum on education funding and school consolidation (Act 46) on Monday at Flood Brook School in Londonderry. While Olsen gave a nuts and bolts presentation to explain how the school funding system currently works, it became clear that the crowd was largely populated by school board members, educators, administrators and state legislators who were already familiar with the problem and wanted to hear from Olsen’s guests.

from left, Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith, House Education Committee Chair David Sharp and local house representative Oliver Olsen

From left, Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith, House education committee chair David Sharpe and House Rep. Oliver Olsen. Photo by Shawn Cunningham

House education committee chair David Sharpe pointed to the legal mandate to educate children and to the Brigham Decision, which said that unequal education opportunities based on funding was unconstitutional and lead to the creation of Act 60. “The basic answer is that we are responsible for educating all students,” said Sharpe.

Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith, a candidate for governor in 2016, told the audience that education finance is a perpetual issue and not just in Vermont. “It’s a challenge everywhere,” said Smith. Smith and Sharpe pointed to previous legislation that was meant to eliminate disparity of educational opportunity by equalizing funding throughout the state. The result, according to Smith, was more resources “but not necessarily more opportunities.”

The trio addressed shrinking enrollments, saying that the number of teachers is not shrinking with the enrollment thus keeping per pupil spending high. Act 46 addresses some of these issues by consolidating school functions.

Noting that Londonderry’s residential tax rate went up 12 percent this year (from $1.4578 to $1.639 per $100) Olsen pointed to per pupil spending saying that it was this and not the overall school budget that had a large impact on the complex calculations that determine education tax rates.

Olsen also noted that the Common Level of Assessment,  which helps to equalize the value of real estate throughout the state, plays a “huge role” in the tax rate but “has nothing to do with education spending.” The CLA goes down when recent real estate sales prices are higher than the town assessment. When it goes below a one-to-one correlation, the CLA pushes the tax rate up. Here is the Telegraph’s explainer on school funding.

The discussion of Act 46 bounced back and forth between finding opportunities to realize savings and increase curriculum offerings in running larger districts to finding savings by downsizing staff – especially teachers. Olsen offered that savings could be found in administration while Frank Rucker, business administrator for the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, countered that administration takes up only 2 percent of the budget and there’s not a lot to be saved in cutting from such a small area.

Rucker noted that the real costs in schools are the teachers.

The group discussed the various ways that school governance could be consolidated and what effect it would have. School board members from several communities related their experience with the new law and called on the public to talk with them. “We need to make really important choices,” said John Mowry,  Mountain Towns Regional Education District board member. “We don’t want to do it alone.”

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