House vote on H.361

This past week the House approved H.361, this year’s education bill by a vote 0f 88-55. The final bill that passed the house is: H. 361 Section By Section Summary.
This bill seeks to create “Integrated Education Systems”. This is an important and understandable goal, particularly if you understand that Vermont has a growing challenge, especially with smaller high schools, where the disparity in educational opportunities for students in big and small districts is not only unfair, but could also be ripening the environment for litigious action. This is primarily caused by the flawed funding mechanism. Vermont is supposed to be an educational “equity” state, offering substantially similar educational opportunities. What we actually offer is substantially equal taxing capacity for districts, which has led to a growing disparity in programmatic offerings, despite an ever increasing cost. This is not an easy problem to fix, as not everyone agrees on the solution needed.
This bill does not to lower or manage property taxes, an issue that is of critical importance to Vermonters, including my husband and I.

H.361 Word Cloud

H.361 Word Cloud

This legislation also does not mention poverty (not once), an issue facing a number of students in very large schools and some smaller schools, and the overwhelming focus of concern at this years statewide two day summit the Green Mountain Imperative.  We have a school in our region approaching 70% poverty.  Poverty levels in that range have to be addressed more broadly then just in our schools, that is a community wide issue.

The bill does have some promising pieces which I think will help inform future reform efforts.  The first is an adequacy study to be done this Summer which was proposed by a group of folks from Central Vermont led by Fayston School Board Chair Heidi Spear.  Representative Ann Manwaring also crafted language to create a joint over site board for education which will be led by the chairs of the education, finance and appropriations committee.  Representative Mitzi Johnson also proposed legislation that would allows towns to designate up to three high schools.
I was part of a small group legislators, including four from Southern Vermont – Rep. Komline from Dorset, Rep. Olsen from Londonderry and Rep. Long from Newfane, that put together a compromise, the “Buxton amendment”, which replaced the individual spending cap with a statewide spending trigger, protected our students from choice towns who are going to school out of state, requires the Agency of Education to publish criteria by which small schools will be able to keep their small schools grant a year in advance, and requires unfunded new mandates, imposed by the Governor or Legislature, be paid for out of the General Fund.
For those who have known me any length of time, you know that compromise on this issue was a gut wrenching decision.  As you would expect, I was prepared with multiple amendments to the bill, and armed with enough information from 15 years of studying/fighting the issue to make a good run at eviscerating the bill on the floor.   But, in the end, this bill was going to pass the House, the only question was what would be in it.  The decision I made was based on what I believed would be the most effective at mitigating the immediate threats to students, and ensuring a longer conversation.  I will continue to work with the small and rural schools caucus I have formed in the House and with the groups around Vermont that are starting to come together  on the additional challenges, and opportunities, consolidation efforts may pose.  My communicated intention, to work with House and Ed Committee leadership to make sure our rural and small communities challenges are heard and addressed through this process, has been welcomed.  The bill has to go to the Senate where it is almost guaranteed to be significantly altered.  You should definitely reach out to our Senators if you support or if you oppose the bill.  After making it’s way through the Senate, a the bill has to come back to the House, where the alterations may or may not be agreed to. The bill that left the House was held together pretty tenuously with the compromise amendment.  This bill will only become law if and after the House and Senate agree to a final version.  At that time I will send out an email with how your students, districts and towns will be impacted.
Thank you to all who have reached out and weighed in on this incredibly important topic, central to Vermont’s future.  Whether you agreed with me or wrote to beat me up, you’re improving the thinking all around the issue by speaking up.  Please don’t hesitate to email me at lhsibilia@gmail.com or to call my cell phone 802-384-0233 during the week, and my home phone on the weekend 348-7131, with ideas or concerns.

THE BIG BUDGET BILL: I voted with the majority in the House on this bill (H.389) as passed. Progressives wanted a lot more taxes, and I voted against the many amendments proposed by them to increase the amount and type of taxes we collect. Like the fee bill earlier in the session, I made a decision to do something for our region and my constituents instead of just voting no and getting the tax increase anyway. In this case I voted for NOT reducing tourism and marketing and for protecting the veterans in the veterans home while a longer term financial plan is established.    

WATER QUALITY: A Water Quality Bill (H.35), was passed by the House last week and is now in the Senate.  The bill establishes standards for the agricultural and forest industry; for development and for impervious surfaces; and for the state and town highway system. It looks to provide additional staffing to the Agency of Natural Resources and the Agency of Agriculture, along with funds for municipalities and local nonprofits to address the requirements of Lake Champlain’s pollution as required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.  The 8M financing of the bill calls for an increase in the property transfer tax.  I voted for this bill because doing nothing was not an option.  The EPA would have imposed their own solution on Vermont, perhaps at a higher price.

 

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