Dan French appointed new Vermont Secretary of Education

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New Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French

Governor Scott has announced the appointment of Dan French as Vermont’s next Education Secretary.  Secretary French is very familiar with our districts two supervisory unions: WSWSU and the WCSU.  He previously served as the Superintendent in the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union to our north, and consulted on several Act 46 mergers and on behalf of previous AOE Secretary Holcomb, opportunities for collaboration between our two supervisory unions.

Secretary French is highly qualified and experienced in the function and dysfunction of Vermont’s current education delivery and financing system which includes multiple major reform initiatives currently being led at the local level.  He is also specifically familiar with the Twin Valley mergers and all of the Act 46 efforts currently underway in both of our supervisory unions.  I am cautiously optimistic about this appointment.

Hopefully with this appointment, we will see prompt follow through at the AOE on reexamining the issues of student weight as doubly required by statute.  This is perhaps the most critical component for both lowering property taxes and ensuring equity under the current financing formula.  I hope Secretary French makes the case for additional AOE staffing resources to support Act 46, Special Education, employee healthcare efforts currently underway at the local level by local citizens.  It is my hope that his experience will temper consideration of any additional major policy initiatives in the next two years  – including, especially, mandatory state directed staff ratio adjustments.

I have recently heard from a number of non income sensitized property owners that they were surprised by the size of the increase in this year’s property tax bill.  It remains a priority for me to successfully address property taxes and maintain accessible high quality education for students in our communities.  We can do both if we are willing to look at the major cause of our inability to control the tax rate or ensure equity for all Vermont students – disconnected state funding and local decision making systems.

Please stay engaged and stay in touch via email lhsibilia@gmail.com or phone 802-384-0233.

Rep. Laura Sibilia
State Representative
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham
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GOVERNOR PHIL SCOTT APPOINTS DAN FRENCH AS EDUCATION SECRETARY

The two affirm their joint vision for improving education quality, efficiency and equity from cradle-to-career

Montpelier, Vt. – Governor Phil Scott on Thursday announced Dan French, Ed.D. as the new Secretary of the Agency of Education.

French started his career in education as a high school social studies teacher, K-12 principal and superintendent in Canaan, Vt. After living and working in the Northeast Kingdom for 15 years, he moved south to serve as superintendent for the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union from 2007-2016. In 2009, French was named Vermont Superintendent of the Year, and he served as president of the Vermont Superintendents Association from 2010-2012. From 2016-2018, he was the coordinator of the School Leadership Graduate Program at Saint Michael’s College where he taught graduate courses in school leadership, the legal and financial management of schools and using data to improve schools.

Per Vermont statute, the State Board of Education initiated a search for the next Secretary of Education in April. Of the candidates that applied, the State Board forwarded three candidates to the Governor. The Governor interviewed all three candidates this summer, ultimately selecting and appointing French.

French, 54, currently lives in Manchester Center. He starts his new role at the Vermont Agency of Education on August 13.

Governor Scott provided the following statement:

“I want to thank the State Board of Education for their diligence and urgency in advancing three highly qualified candidates. Secretary French has tremendous understanding of Vermont’s education system and the opportunity we have to strengthen and transform it from good to great. We’re very excited to have someone with his expertise in this critically important post within state government.

“This is a pivotal moment in the history of public education in Vermont. As we know, the biggest single investment we make as a state – approaching $2 billion – is in our kids through funding education. And the fact is – like many other areas – the education system is being weakened by our changing demographics and an increasingly inefficient system that’s diverting budget dollars away from kids.

“As most Vermonters know, the K-12 system was built to educate more than 100,000 students. Today, we’re educating less than 80,000. In fact, we’re educating about 27,000 fewer than 20 years ago, and declines continue at an average rate of about three students per day. Our student-to-staff ratio has decreased from about six kids for every one adult to about four to one. 

“These trends have contributed significantly to the affordability crisis many families face, persistent inequality between districts, and expanding inefficiencies that divert millions of dollars away from our kids. 

“Think of it this way: We are now spending about $1.7 billion to educate fewer than 80,000 students. According to the National Education Association, we have the largest per-student investment in the country, spending twice the national average. We have a good graduation rate, but our student test scores are only two percentage points higher than the national average. We are not making substantial gains in improving outcomes for disadvantaged students. And only about half of our high school graduates go on to receive a technical or trade credential or earn a college degree. 

“Outcomes and funding from school to school remain unequal. We have some schools offering a wide range of foreign languages, environmental studies and cutting-edge science, technology and engineering programs. And we have other schools that can’t offer any of these opportunities.

“The fact is, it’s time to have the courage to admit we can do much more for our kids, achieve better outcomes and attract more families – and that is why I am appointing Dan to be our next secretary of Education.

“Dan sees the opportunity and the necessity we have to transform our system from good to great. And he has the expertise to work with districts and local education leaders to re-center the system’s focus on expanding opportunities and improving outcomes for our kids in a way that’s sustainable and affordable for taxpayers.

“Finally, I want to thank Acting Secretary Heather Bouchey for her leadership, and all the staff at the Agency of Education for their hard work through this transition. Over the last four months, Heather has been a valuable and relentlessly positive member of my Cabinet and has worked closely with the staff to manage the day-to-day operations at the Agency without interruption. We are fortunate to have her at the Agency of Education.”

Secretary Dan French provided the following statement:

“I want to thank Governor Scott for the opportunity to serve as Vermont’s next Secretary of Education. Although we have challenges in our education system, we are fortunate to have significant talent and capacity for innovation at all levels. Because of this capacity, I am optimistic about our future.

“Many of our challenges in education can be seen as systems or organizational challenges. Act 46 has been very successful in moving us down a path toward rightsizing our governance structure. We must now leverage this work to transform our system into a world class education system, a system that offers expanded learning opportunities for every Vermonter, and a system that contributes to broader social and economic development of our state.

“I am excited about this work and the opportunity to help modernize our education system to better meet the future needs of our students, their families and our state.”

About Secretary French:

Daniel M. French started his career in education as a high school social studies teacher, K-12 principal, and superintendent in Canaan, Vt. He then served as the superintendent for the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union from 2007-2016. In 2009, French was named Vermont Superintendent of the Year, and he served as president of the Vermont Superintendents Association from 2010-2012. From 2016-2018, he was the coordinator of the School Leadership Graduate Program at Saint Michael’s College where he taught graduate courses in school leadership, the legal and financial management of schools and using data to improve schools.

French also provided consulting services to Vermont school districts and the Vermont Agency of Education with a focus on assisting districts with improving their organizational performance as a result of merging. He has been very active in the development of major Vermont education policy initiatives including Act 153, Act 156, Act 77 and Act 46. 

French obtained his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Connecticut in 1985, his master’s degree in educational administration from Plymouth State University in 1996, and his doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Vermont in 2014.

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Final update of the 2018 session

The eventful 2018 session has come to an end and my final review of the session follows.  Over the summer and fall you can expect to hear more from me on updates to the State’s Act 46 plan, telecommunications and CoverageCo, the scheduling of a public forum on healthcare.  I did previously announce my intention to run for re-election and I’m writing a piece about what it is like to run and serve as an independent in Vermont.

As always, please be in touch with your thoughts and concerns through email at lhsibilia@gmail.com or phone at 802-384-0233

Rep. Laura Sibilia
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham

PO Box 2052
West Dover, VT 05356
cell: 802-384-0233

The final Budget and Tax bills

The total FY 2019 Budget of $5.8 billion is up .5% over current fiscal year.  The budget adds beds for mental health care and also increases child care provider reimbursements. It also provides $5 million in revolving state funds for home weatherization and pays off $3.9 million in debt at Vermont Life Magazine, which will no longer be published.

Related to education, the budget and tax bill pay down a portion of the $1.3 billion existing liability in teacher pension fund by $100 million.  We have also moved expenses img_1392from education fund into general fund (renter rebate, community high school of Vermont, Adult Education, Flexible Pathways). This is something voters in the Valley have repeatedly asked for in the last decade and a half and was part of Speaker Johnson’s education financing proposal at the beginning of the session.

Property Tax Adjustment for education rates will be reduced by lowering the value of house site for those paying property tax based on income.  This change effects 16,000 households across the state.

Statewide bargaining for public school employee’s health care contract has been agreed to – Governor Scott had asked for this to happen last year and this issue was the cause of the 2017 budget disagreement.

There is also a commission to study student/staff ratios in public schools, supported by the Vermont School Board Association Board of Directors. This work must be done in conjunction with the twice passed and funded student weighting study if it is to result in tax savings and maintain constitutionally required equity on opportunity.

There were several personal tax changes this year, including some necessitated by increases that would have resulted from the federal tax changes. Vermont will reduce personal income tax rates by .2% and collapse the top two income brackets.  The legislature also established Vermont standard deductions ($6,000 single, $12,000 joint) and personal exemption of $4,150.

There is now a 5% tax credit on charitable donations (limited to $1,000), and Social Security Income for low and moderate-income households (under $55,000) is exempted from income taxes.

The Vermont Earned Income Tax Credit has been increased from 32% to 36% of federal level and a Vermont Tax Structure Commission to review current  guardfunding sources to support state government has been created.

Tuition reimbursement for Vermont National Guard soldiers, the only remaining New England state not to have offered the benefit, was agreed to.

The budget also included a study on carbon pricing.  I support this study, because it will outline issues that will need to be addressed prior to any kind of carbon tax being implemented.

New gig/sharing economy regulations:

  • Act 10 creates a registry for all short-term rentals in the state by requiring hosts to
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    Image credit: Crunchbase

    register online and acquire a rooms and meals tax identification number, which they will need to publish on all their advertisements and visibly post that number in their rental units with emergency contact numbers. (AirBnB, Homeaway and other short term rentals)

  • H.725 Regulating Transportation Network Companies established insurance requirements for companies like Uber and Lyft to cover drivers and passengers for up to $1 million, plus med pay of $5,000.  The companies are also required to vet drivers using background checks and the records are subject to inspection by the Vermont Department of motor Vehicles.

Internet access and security:

  • Data Brokers H.764 will provide consumers with greater protection over their personal information by starting to regulate data brokers – those who buy and sell personal information of individuals with whom they have no other business relationship. Those brokers will be required to register with the state and provide the Attorney General with information about the nature of the information they collect and their means of collecting it.  The law also requires data brokers to disclose when they experience a breach of personal information.
  • Net Neutrality S.289 requires internet service providers (ISPs) that contract with the State of Vermont to adhere to net neutrality standards which includes not downloadblocking content, engaging in paid prioritization of internet services or acting to “throttle, impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of Internet content, application, or service.” As part of the legislation, the Vermont’s Attorney General will:
    • determine whether internet service providers in the state follow net neutrality standards and report back prior to the next legislative session
    • make the ISP’s public statements about their Net Neutrality function information available to consumers by posting it on a website
    • conduct a joint study with the Department of Public Service to determine whether Vermont should put additional net neutrality rules for internet providers in place in the future

Governor Scott signed an executive order in February requiring internet companies that do business with the state to abide by net neutrality principles. I co-sponsored the House net neutrality legislation and secured a unanimous vote out of our committee on an amendment to the Senate bill.  Whether or not ISP’s are honoring net neutrality principals will need to be monitored vigorously in the future.  The whole world of telecommunications is rapidly changing and evolving and competition for future survival is fully in play at the national level.

Healthcare:

  • Individual mandate Vermont: With the repeal of the individual mandate federally, Vermont became the 3rd state to require the individual mandate after Massachusetts and New Jersey. Starting in 2020, residents of Vermont will be required to have health insurance or be subject to state tax penalties with the passage of a revised legislative bill H.696. The specifics for how the statewide mandate will exist have not been determined but will be determined by a working group in 2019 prior to the launch of the new requirements starting on January 1, 2020. In the meantime, no state penalties will be imposed on residents who do not obtain healthcare coverage prior to 2020. Vermont residents will be contacted by state officials as part of “educated outreach efforts” to answer any questions and inform residents of the policies and procedures as they are determined prior to going into effect in 2020.
  • Drug importation from Canada S 175 directs the state Agency of Human Services to Flag_of_Canada_(Pantone).svgdesign a program to import wholesale prescription drugs from Canada. Drugs included in the program would have to meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards and “generate substantial savings for Vermont consumers.” The agency must submit a program proposal to the legislature by January 1, 2019, and a formal request to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by July 1, 2019.
  • Rep. John Gannon and I will be hosting a Valley wide info session later this Summer/Fall on both these items as well as giving residents an opportunity to share issues or concerns they are having with regard to healthcare.

Civil Protections:
Equal Pay H.294 prohibits employers from requesting a person’s salary history prior to making a job offer, a practice which often leads to unequal pay between genders.  Employers may still post a salary range, and an applicant may still post salary requirements, but asking for a salary history is now off-limits.

“MeToo”: H.707 I also co-sponsored this tri-partisan legislation which aims to shed some sunlight on habitual harassers and ensure those who were subject to the harassment are not the only ones suffering consequences.

  • Companies cannot require people to sign away their right to report sexual harassment as part of a pre-employment contract. 
  • All supervisors and managers, including those who oversee or contract with volunteers, interns and independent contractors, have an obligation to ensure the working relationship is “free from sexual harassment.”
  • Sexual harassment settlements cannot prohibit the person making the complaint from working for the employer in the future.
  • The Attorney General’s Office can visit workplaces and require employers to change their practices.
  • Vermont will create an online portal for making complaints of discrimination and sexual harassment.

Marijuana legalization:
The law took effect on July 1. Read the legislation here. Adults who are at least 21 years imageold are allowed to possess and grow marijuana: possess up to one ounce of marijuana or for growing two mature marijuana plants and four immature marijuana plants per housing unit.

  • The plants must be in a secure enclosure that is screened from public view.
  • Marijuana harvested from plants doesn’t count toward the one-ounce limit as long as it’s stored on-site, in an indoor place.

Convictions for possessing more than one ounce of marijuana, or more than two mature and four immature plants, are imprisonment up to six months and fine up to $500.  Providing marijuana to a person under 21 years old can result in imprisonment up to two years and fines up to $2,000. It is a misdemeanor crime to use marijuana in a car with a child, with penalties starting at $500 and two points on a driver’s license.  Impaired driving remains illegal under the law, and neither drivers nor passengers are allowed to use marijuana in a vehicle. Anyone with an open container of marijuana in a vehicle can be fined $200.

Marijuana use is limited to “individual dwellings” and is prohibited in any street, alley, park or sidewalk. Landlords can ban possession and use of marijuana as part of a lease agreement. Using or growing marijuana at a child care facility is not allowed.

Here is a summary of all legislation which passed in 2018.

Failed efforts:

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Making the case for funding for internet expansion & connecting rural Vermont.

Legislation mandating an increase in the minimum wage and paid family leave passed the House (without my support) and the Senate, but did not have enough votes to overturn the governors veto.

Legislation increasing the Vermont Universal Service Fund fee by .05% passed the House with a veto proof tri-partisan vote. This increase would have raised a very modest 1.5 Million a year for internet expansion and would have raised a $100 phone bill by .50 cents. Unfortunately, just like in 2016 when we passed this bill, the Senate refused to bring it to the floor for a vote.

Rural Economic Development Working Group: I’m a Co-Chair of this tri-partisan and independent group of House members with Rep. Chip Conquest and Rep. Charlie Kimbell.  With the support of the Speaker, we held a hearing last fall to hear about issues that were important to rural Vermont.  Based on that hearing, the House Rural Economic Development Working Group advocated for three primary issues during the 2018 legislative session:

  1. Provide regulatory relief for the forest products industry and for additional ways to support their industry.
  2. Expand high speed, broadband technology into rural Vermont to give communities the opportunity to participate in today’s economy.
  3. Provide small communities with planning assistance and access to financing to design, build and maintain community wastewater and potable water systems.

Several bills passed the legislature with REDWnG’s support and assistance that provided the following to rural Vermont:

  • Gave individual homeowners, including owners of multifamily homes, access to funding for wastewater systems that are close to failing, with very favorable terms.
  • Enabled private entities to tap into the state Revolving Clean Water Fund to build wastewater treatment systems.
  • Foresters were granted the right to conduct forest harvesting operations without risk of being shut down because of complaints of neighbors provided that they follow best forestry practices.
  • Certain forestry machinery was granted exemption from purchase and use tax to make it more affordable to purchase new equipment.
  • Funding for the Working Lands Enterprise Fund, supporting agricultural businesses, was increased to $700K.
  • Freed up $1.2 million that had been parked in a now defunct telecommunications authority project to be used to support the expansion of broadband and cellular phone connectivity.
  • Created a pilot project to fund expansion of the outdoor recreation industry through “model communities.”
  • As a result of our advocacy, the Department of Environmental Conservation is working closely with the Agency of Commerce and Community Development to remove regulatory obstacles for towns looking to replace or construct properly sized wastewater systems.

surveybumpstocks2019 Constituent Survey:

The results from last years survey were really helpful to me as I considered policy and the best use of my time during the session.  I’m interested in hearing any questions you think might be helpful to ask a broad valley audience

Voting to override the Governor’s veto

Thursday of last week Governor Scott vetoed the budget proposed in H.13.  This budget was virtually the same budget that a tri-partisan majority of senators and representatives approved during the regular session in H.911, but removed the items under contention between Governor Scott and the Vermont Legislature – namely how to spend unanticipated revenues from one time tax changes, tobacco and other settlements and – good news – growth in receipts from a recovering economy.

The legislature refused to negotiate the “tax bill” H.4 until the governor signed the budget.  The governor refused to sign the budget until the legislature agreed to use those funds to artificially lower all property taxes so that there would be no increase on property taxes for a second year in a row. The legislature won’t agree to artificially lowering this year’s property tax rates because it sets up a significant property tax increase next year.  The governor won’t move from his position because he believes Vermonters are with him, school-boards have issued a call to override the governor because they believe acquiescing supports a false narrative about how education property rates are determined and sets up a negative chain of events for next year.

We are at a stalemate.

On Friday I attended a day long series of hearings between the legislature’s relevant committees – appropriations, ways and means and education – and members of the administration, the Vermont State Treasurer and the Joint Fiscal Office.  Pretty much all agree that doing what the governor has requested – artificially zeroing out property tax rates – is going to cause a very significant property tax increase next year regardless of what locals decide to vote at next year’s Town Meeting. We could return those funds in some other less precarious way to Vermonters by paying down future debt, or even as straight up refunds, but the governor is insistent they have to be returned through the property tax. That’s a problem. And it’s bad policy.

With some limited movement from the legislature and even less movement from the administration, at this point I’m voting to support the school boards and communities working to change the system.  I can’t support the governor’s current position and will vote to override.

Governor Scott has successfully applied downward pressure on increasing taxes and fees.   I think many Vermonters, like me, thought we needed a pause to catch our breath from the rapidly increasing – and costly – new nation leading programming we were implementing year another year, and that – more then any other reason – is why our moderate Phil Scott is governor.

However it is important for all to remember that at the same time Governor Scott was elected, Vermont was also beginning to undergo massive education transformation through Act 46.  Last year and this year we have pushed forward additional MAJOR reforms in special ed, weighting and considerations for teachers healthcare being negotiated at the state level.  These are significant, difficult and cost containing state policy changes being implemented at the local level.  As a planner, I know these processes take years to be fully realized.  With our distributed governance system – we are on the locals timeline.  I can not willingly vote to undermine the work going on by communities and school districts by supporting a built in tax increase next year that will have absolutely nothing to do with educating Vermonts students.

I support the goal of returning excess funds to Vermonters.  I do not support the largely false narrative that we control property tax rates in Montpelier and that we should not “raise” rates, because it just isn’t true.

We are approaching unchartered territory with the reality of a potential government shutdown needing to be acknowledged by all responsible parties.

The vote tomorrow will be close and regardless of whether or not the governor is sustained there will be ongoing negotiations.  It is my sincere hope that during those negotiations House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe will not only work to return as much excess revenue as possible to Vermonters, but that they will steadfastly defend Vermont’s students and the integrity of our rapidly changing education governance and finance system to ensure Vermonters future access to high quality education throughout our state. I hope Governor Scott will agree to moderate his position on this issue and commit to those same goals.  And that all will respect and encourage the ongoing and extremely difficult work going on in our communities. If these goals are shared we will quickly finish our business, pass a budget, provide unexpected additional tax relief and let the rest of Vermont get on with their lives.

2018 special session continues

At the end of this year’s regular legislative session both education finance/tax and state budget bills passed by large tri-partisan majorities.  The Governor vetoed both – citing the property tax increases that the bills allow to go into place.  This update will focus almost exclusively on the education finance aspects of the bills that are being debated in what is entering a 3rd week of a special session.

H.911 was passed during the regular session and contained the tax legislation required  to set residential and non-residential property tax rates.  This would have allowed an increase of 2.6 cents on the residential rate and 5 cents on the non-residential rate, to pay for the school budgets that voters approved at Town Meeting.  The state budget which passed at the end of the regular session would have also put one-time funds towards teachers retirement.

The two bills we passed included:

  • $9.8 million in one-time money going into the education fund to restore reserves
  • Capping income sensitivity adjustments at $400,000 of property value, rather than $500,000
  • A removal of the general fund transfer instead committing all the revenue from the sales and use tax, and 25 percent of the meals and rooms tax to the education fund. The education fund would have no longer paid for adult education programs, renter rebates, or the Community High School of Vermont.
  • Fixed an inadvertent $30 million income tax hike on Vermonters from the federal tax changes enacted last year, created a Vermont standard deduction and Vermont personal exemptions. The bill also reduced Vermont tax rates and collapsed the top two tax brackets and established a charitable tax credit for Vermonters that would be capped at $20,000
  • 34.5 million in one-time money to pay down obligations to the teacher’s retirement fund which is projected to save $100 million in interest over time.

I voted for both the budget and the tax bill during the regular session because I believe they struck a good balance for where we are in time with our distributed education system.

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The Governor vetoed both bills over the property tax increase they allow this year.  In addition, and importantly, his administration wants to be able to be able to pull funding out of the current system to be able to pay for expanded childcare and post secondary education in upcoming years.

The administration’s end of session proposal has six components and relies on the projected savings over 5 years to pay back funds used this year to eliminate the property tax increase:

  1. Move to new Special Education payment method (legislation is passed & signed)
  2. Lowering income sensitivity house value from $500K to $400K (agreed to by the legislature)
  3. Increase student/staff ratio working with task force (task force agreed to by the legislature, $250 million in projected savings by 2024 not agreed to)
  4. Significantly reduce per pupil excess spending penalty
  5. Transition to statewide healthcare bargaining unit
  6. Property tax adjustments for new homesteads after 7/1/2018

The backdrop for this debate is the massive organizational transformation Vermont’s education system is currently undergoing.   Since Act 46 passed in 2015, voters in 146 towns have voted to merge 157 former districts into 39 new unified districts, in 33 former Supervisory Unions, for a net reduction of 118 districts and 4 fewer supervisory unions.  The latest evidence of this historical transformation came out June 1st with the release of the Secretary’s Proposed Plan under Act 46, Sec. 10

Governor Scott reminded Vermonters in a recent oped that there is good reason for the ongoing organizational changes in Act 46: “…our education system is being weakened by a decline in our working-age population and an increasingly inefficient system that’s diverting budget dollars away from kids. The K-12 system was built to educate more than 100,000 kids. Today, we’re educating about 76,0000 – that’s 27,000 fewer in 20 years, and declines continue.”

At the state and local level we are all working overtime to stabilize a system that is critical for Vermont’s children and future.  Situations with very few changes occurring are considered “stable”.  Systems that are not stable – undergoing a lot of change –  require careful management to avoid system failures.

Governor Scott’s administration and the Vermont legislature must acknowledge and respond appropriately to the level of stress that exists in many of our communities (and institutions) given just how much change is occurring in our demographics, our communities and our rural education system.   We need to be careful.  The full effects of the 157 Act 46 school district mergers noted above will take at least 10 years to fully unfold, and additional future merger recommendations are ongoing.

In this historic period of time, Vermonters have choices to make if we want to have a strong publicly funded education system 10 years from now. When making these choices in the next few years, Vermont’s policy makers must prioritize stabilizing the system first with an eye towards positively impacting quality and cost.  This will be challenging given Vermont’s education system has shared state and local roles.

It is virtually impossible to manage for both costs and quality in our current system of shared state and local decision making.  Vermont has a state education taxing and finance system for which no single entity is accountable to tax payers and which currently cannot scale equitably.  When it comes to quality of student opportunity, the responsibility is squarely placed on local decision makers who must assess student and budget needs, develop a budget based on those needs, assess information from the state on how much per pupil spending is acceptable this year, and who then are held accountable by local voters at Town Meeting for the ensuing tax implications.

So how are we going to find a compromise between the governor and legislators?  The debate has been defined as whether or not to use unanticipated revenue and one time funds to buy down tax rates for one year, or pay down borrowed teachers retirement funds and save interest.  We will likely land somewhere in the middle.  There are several proposals under consideration right now to find consensus on new tax and budget bills:

  • House Ways and Means has proposed to use one time funds to eliminate the residential property tax increase this year.  Like we did last year.  This comes with the knowledge that we are artificially lowering tax rates, even though spending went up this year.  And that means we will likely see a bigger increase next year.
  • Rep. Cynthia Browning has proposed using one time funds to pay for the Act 46 incentives instead of raising taxes to pay for them.  She rightly notes that no local school budgets included the cost of the incentives, and these are a state imposed cost driver of tax rates.  This year that cost was about $10 million dollars.  In the next two years it will be $14 million each year.
  • Last year’s budget was vetoed over a failure to agree to move teachers healthcare negotiations to the state.   Unique circumstances presented an opportunity to manage both costs and quality.  I strongly supported that proposal, (driven by the governor’s determination to reduce property taxes), becasue it was the first savings proposal I have seen that didn’t create unpredictable and uneven impacts for kids.  We should move this proposal forward as part of a compromise this year.

Decreasing the excess spending threshold and banking on savings from the staff/student ratio task force are not acceptable in this current dynamic atmosphere.  Neither is the “Beck mechanism” which did not make it into the final bill we signed during the regular session, but it is being floated as a part of a “compromise”.  This mechanism acts like the excess spending threshold by presuming that all students are the same and are educated in the same environment and in identical sized communities, but it is able to impose much more aggressive penalties to local taxpayers and students in rural districts.

Most importantly we need to remember the effects of this disagreement are not contained to Montpelier.

After leaving the statehouse one night during week two of the special session, I received an uncharacteristically terse phone call from one of my district’s longest serving school board chairs – “Do you guys have numbers for us yet? Central office says we need to provide our numbers to you, but I don’t understand how you all think we can give you our numbers when you haven’t given us yours.”

This 25 year veteran has not only cautiously and steadily shepherded our local district and our joint district study committee through the Act 46 process, he led our entire Supervisory Union through the first successfully completed S.U. process in southern Vermont.  He is working with our superintendent to try to wrap things up in one district while simultaneously working with two communities to establish staffing, curriculum, transportation and school norms in a new district.  He is really frustrated that the administration and the legislature cannot get on the same page on this year’s education tax rates so he can focus on those things.  He could use quality educational support, technical expertise, and encouragement from Montpelier.  He is not helped by Montpelier trying to manage staffing levels in individual school districts, or by the imposition of extreme per pupil spending penalties on individual rural schools in less densely populated regions of the state.  We can not take his ongoing service for granted.

This phone call points to a central tension in most of our Vermont education debates including the current one: Who do Vermonters want to manage the schools?

Maybe it is time to finally put the state on the hook for using the state’s education fund to ensure equity for all students instead of the Hunger Games scenarios we repeatedly set up in rural and poor Vermont districts.

Pledges to keep property taxes level or lowered are admirable.  They need to be partnered with a sense of responsibility for ensuring we aren’t violating (or exacerbating existing violations) of our constitutional requirement to ensure all Vermont students have substantially equitable educational opportunities.

Please stay in touch, and stay engaged,

Rep. Laura Sibilia
State Representative
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham

“The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” – Tom Bodett

Without new state funding mechanism, Vermonter’s property taxes will keep rising

It’s the holiday season and for many a time of year filled with traditions among families and communities.  In Vermont we also have a unique tradition that kicks off the month of December.  December 1st brings about the annual receipt of the Vermont Tax Commissioner’s statutorily required letter to the legislature regarding anticipated property tax rates.  This event, while not anticipated with as much fondness as other time honored religious and secular conventions, is a predictable, if not pleasant, opening salvo in the annual education property tax public debate.  This year Vermonters are possibly facing a .09 increase. In addition to cumulative expected increases across the state in education spending, tax rates will see the effects of the Act 46 incentives (which will be even higher next year) and the effects of the compromise position reached last year regarding the Governor’s proposal to move teachers healthcare negotiations to the state level which resulted in a budget veto.  Rather then shutting down government or seizing the unique opportunity for parity and accountability and the future ability to fairly manage healthcare costs, the legislature and administration agreed to use reserves and stabilization funds for a one year tax reduction.

The angst and anger resulting from this projected increase is understandable and predictable.  But it’s really not enough to simply continue to be outraged by the property tax.  It’s important to dig in and understand how this situation is happening. It’s not simple.  And it’s no longer acceptable to beg off being part of the solution because it’s “too complicated.”  There are great resources on the Department of Education, the Department of Taxes and the Vermont School Boards Association that explain the mechanics of education finance.

For added perspective, it’s important to also acknowledge that we have a major demographic crisis underway in much of Vermont in terms of declining workforce population which also manifests as declining student population. This crisis is creating a huge stress on our employers, our municipalities and communities all across the state.  The effects of this crisis are easiest to see in rural Vermont, and also shine a light on the myth that equity exists for Vermont’s students and taxpayers.  We have a state mandated education finance system for which no single entity is responsible for students or accountable to taxpayers, that can not scale equitably, resulting in taxes going up statewide and a education structure teetering on the edge of violating Brigham when it comes to student opportunity. (NOTE: First lawsuit filed.) On top of all this, our entire education governance system is in the midst of a complete reorganization through the aforementioned Act 46.

For decades lawmakers and both Democratic and Republican administrations have allowed themselves to believe that equal per pupil spending is an appropriate measure of equity of opportunity. Think about that. Our laws and funding mechanism are constructed to strongly encourage a classroom of 10 students to spend the same per pupil as a classroom of 20 students. Not the same per classroom, the same per pupil. Believe it or not, just about every year the Vermont Legislature, with urging from whoever the Vermont Governor is that year, undertakes an effort to “cut property taxes.” It has almost always revolved around creating downward pressure on per pupil spending. The problem is this, we simply are not able to equally appropriate all of Vermont’s students into equally sized schools. And so almost every year, when state elected officials try to cut property taxes, we are instituting cuts that will be felt unequally, unpredictably, and that frequently cause the most upheaval in Vermont’s most rural districts.

The “tragedy of the commons” describes a situation where a shared-resource system with individual users acting independently – according to their own self-interest – behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action. The shared resource at play in this situation is the statewide education property tax. The notion that that resource is controlled locally and a district’s budget decisions only impact that district’s voters is a fallacy. Every budget vote in every district impacts every other district in the state.  For example, business and non resident’s education property tax rates have nothing to do with local budget decisions happening in their communities.  And while Vermont residents have the ability to control much of their local districts per pupil spending, they do not control all of the other factors that go into determining their local education property tax rates.  We have a statewide education/accountability/tax problem that cannot be solved locally.

The reason for the continued inability for any single district, lawmaker, governor or taxpayer to be able to deal with this tax increase is the current education finance mechanism which relies on ALL Vermont property tax payers to support hundreds of individual LOCAL decisions. There is no single year, silver bullet that fixes this without harming kids, despite the annual cries to simply wave a magic wand at the state level and adjust student staff ratios or mandate the lowering of per pupil spending. For those solutions to be effective, and more importantly constitutional, we’d have to have evenly distributed population, evenly distributed property wealth, evenly spaced out school buildings, equitable access to telecommunications, equitable access to public transportation, equitable access to school choice. And flat roads.   We do not have those things and we never will.  But our current education funding mechanism presumes most of those things exist.  And while the current funding mechanism serves large student and voter population centers, it is not serving rural Vermont students and it definitely is not providing Vermont taxpayers with a transparent means of understanding the return they are getting on their significant investment.   We need a new education financing mechanism.  One that is able to provide statewide accountability for all of Vermont’s students and all of Vermont’s taxpayers.

Rep. Laura Sibilia 2018 session survey

Goose City

Greetings from Goose City!

We are winding down from soccer with our son and looking forward to the holiday return of our girls.   I’m thinking more and more about the coming legislative session, and there are a number of public input sessions I want you to know about further on in this email.

This year I’m hoping you will consider giving some brief input prior to the the legislative session which begins January 3rd and will likely go through early May.  I’ve compiled a brief 10 question survey which is designed for you to weigh in on what areas you’d most like the legislature to spend their time on.   There are a few additional questions about issues that could emerge during the 2018 Vermont political discussion.

This survey is intended for my constituents in Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro and Whitingham, but our weekend residents and neighbors are free to weigh in.  The only required questions are name and town of residence.

Take the survey

I have scheduled two meetings with constituents in Dover and Wardsboro and hope to see you there:

  • Dover Town Hall November 28th 6:30-8
  • Wardsboro Town Hall November 30th 6:30 – 8

In addition I will be attending the Stamford School District meeting on November 14th from 7-9 pm.

And the Twin Valley, Whitingham, Wilmington meeting with Rep. John Gannon in Wilmington on December 19th at 6 pm.

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Upcoming statewide hearings of interest:

Rural Caucus Hearing: The Rural Development Caucus will hold a Public Hearing at the State House from 5–7 pm on Tuesday, November 7 to hear from municipal, business, education, and nonprofit interests in rural Vermont about what the most pressing issues are for rural Vermont. The press release and instructions on how to testify are available here.

Equifax data security breach: The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development will meet to hold hearings around the State to discuss issues related to privacy and data security breaches. Representatives from the Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Financial Regulation, and the Office of Legislative Council will join the Committee in presenting a brief summary of current law and recommended responses to security breaches.

The Committee will hear from the public their questions, experience with breaches, concerns, and suggestions. This topic is a continuation of the Committee’s work last session, and of particular interest in light of current events in relation to the Equifax breach.  A list of meeting dates and locations is available below. Sign-up will begin 30 minutes prior to the hearing’s start time.

Thursday, November 9th

12:30 p.m. Springfield Town Offices Selectmen’s Hall 96 Main Street Springfield, VT
5:30 p.m. Barton Village Office 17 Village Square Barton, VT

Tuesday, November 14th

12:30 p.m. Manchester Community Library Hunter Community Room 138 Cemetery Avenue Manchester Center, VT
6:00 p.m. Department of Health Conference Room 2B 108 Cherry Street Burlington, VT

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December 15th deadline – Open Enrollment: Open enrollment is the time of year when you can make changes to your Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont or MVP Healthcare insurance coverage. The new plan year begins January 1, 2018. If you want to change plans, you should call the Vermont Health Connect Customer Support Center or log into your account. If you don’t contact them and confirm a plan choice by December 15, 2017, you likely won’t be able to change plans until the next Open Enrollment.

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Education:

As you may recall, former Rep. Oliver Olsen and I have been fighting for years to commission a study of pupil counting, as we believe that the current system unfairly harms rural districts with small population densities, and we fought hard to have this study included in an act of the General Assembly.  We were finally successful in the 2017 session.
There is a fight brewing with AOE on whether or not this study will be done.  Right now they are refusing.
The chronically flawed funding formula which does not scale for size, the failure to capitalize on last year’s unique opportunity for significant savings through establishing statewide equitable healthcare benefits for education staff, increases in healthcare costs, the pending Act 46 incentives and other non-locally voted on expenses are going to result in yet another increase in property taxes this year.
Without changes to the way we count students, it is a virtual certainty that rural districts will be asked to make more substantial cuts then more population dense districts, once again unfairly and unequally hurting kids.  This study is the next important “tweek” needed for Vermont’s broken education financing mechanism.  It has been needed for many many years.  There is near universal consensus this formula does not work.  I am frustrated with the lack of transparency at all levels of state government about the non-local drivers of education property taxes.
Perhaps with last weeks news out of Whitingham there is light at the end of this very long tunnel for our taxpayers and our students.
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Some positive economic development progress stories from our district:
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As always, thank you for providing feedback and suggestions. Please don’t hesitate to call or email with questions or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or lhsibilia@gmail.com.
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Congratulations to all of the organizers and volunteers of this year’s Gilfeather Turnip Festival in Wardsboro – beautiful weather and record breaking turn out!

Budget, Taxes and Act 46 public hearing

“We always hear about the rights of democracy, but the major responsibility of it is participation”
~Wynton Marsalis
April 1, 2017  
Public Hearing on possible changes to Act 46: The Senate has passed S.122, which would make modifications to Act 153 and Act 46.  The bills stated purpose is to provide increased flexibility for school district mergers.

The House Education Committee will hold a public hearing on S.122 on Tuesday evening, April 4, 2017.  The hearing will be held in room 11 at the State House in Montpelier from 5:30-7:30 PM.Witnesses may begin signing up at 5 PM for time to speak.  Testimony will be limited to three minutes per person with witnesses speaking in the order of sign up.  The Committee will also accept written testimony.  Testimony and questions may be directed to:

Marjorie Zunder, Committee Assistant, House Education Committee
mzunder@leg.state.vt.us

802-828-2258

This is an important opportunity for boards and members of the public to share information that can assist the House Education Committee as they consider the changes the Senate has suggested and whether or not to accept those changes and whether or not to make additional changes themselves. 

This is an important hearing. Testifying is easy.  Consider writing out your three minutes of testimony, and also consider framing it the form of a suggestion.  What could the legislature do that would make the job of improving opportunities for students easier?  If you do plan to come up and testify, please send me an email or text to let me know so I can plan to meet up with you.

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Important Wardsboro Meeting also happening on April 4th:

Wardsboro has scheduled a re-vote on the Dover/Marlboro/Wardsboro Act 46 merger articles to be held on May 1, 2017.  The board has warned the following meetings:

April 4, 2017 @ 6:30 p.m. at Wardsboro Elementary School – regularly scheduled school board meeting which will be attended by Brad James and Donna Russo-Savage from the Agency of Education.  Brad is a long time AOE staffer and Donna literally wrote Act 46 when she was employed as one of the lawyers for the legislature.  This will also be a good opportunity for Wardsboro residents to get answers to questions they have prior to the re-vote.

April 24, 2017 @ 6:30 p.m. at the Wardsboro Town Hall (public forum specifically for Act 46 reconsideration vote)

An abundance of information, previously posed questions and answers, and the proposed merger articles can be found at http://wcsu-committee.blogspot.com/

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This past week the House passed the tax bill unanimously – raising virtually no new taxes, but banking on increased enforcement for a small amount of funding. There was nearly unanimous support for the budget which increased by 1%.  The budget was largely uncontroversial with the exception of a study on education spending.  Rep. Heidi Scheuermann from Stowe and I, both proponents of property tax reform, spoke at length in opposition to this proposed study which calls for identification of cost drivers in education and legislative proposals to address the cost drivers.  Rep. Scheuermann spoke to dozens of studies which have been done on cost drivers in the past and called for action on the funding formula.  I spoke to the statutory definitions that make per pupil spending the definition of equity of opportunity called for in Brigham and also called for action on the funding formula.  Our request to strike the study received tri-partisan support but was was ultimately defeated 86-42.

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Thank you to all who have been contacting me on issues impacting or interesting you individually and our communities collectively.  I want to take a moment to share a few thoughts on particular bills I have heard from a number of folks on:

H.422 An act relating to removal of firearms from a person arrested or cited for domestic assault.  This bill passed the House 78-67.  This bill was initially troubling for me.  I am a strong supporter of our Constitution, but also know very well the danger and unpredictability in domestic violence situations.   Ultimately I voted against this measure because the law basically changed only one thing, whether or not a judge was contacted prior to removing a firearm after a crime had been committed which did not convince me made anyone safer and did infringe on due process for the accused.

H.170 An act relating to possession and cultivation of marijuana by a person 21 years of age or older.  Voters may recall I voted against last years (very different) marijuana legislation.  I’m convinced legalization will happen, but as long as it is still illegal federally, Vermont legislation needs to thoroughly consider taxation, regulation, impaired driving and youth prevention in order for me to consider voting for it.  This past week H.170 came to the floor for a vote.  I made a motion to send it to the Human Services Committee for additional considerations on youth prevention, which was agreed to.  My sense is the bill may yet emerge for a vote in the House.  If a vote passes the House it is expected to pass the Senate which overwhelming approved last years bill.

H.316 An act relating to renewable energy goals for Vermont’s total energy consumption.  This legislation seeks to put Vermont’s renewable energy goals into law, that is that we will provide 90% of our energy by renewable resources by 2050.  I am not opposed to this legislation, which was also introduced in the Senate.  The bill is in my committee for consideration this year or next, along with about 30 other bills.  We have taken zero testimony on this bill, and that will definitely happen prior to us taking it up.  Given that the session is 3/4 over, the chances for this bill this year are pretty slim.   I was surprised to be contacted by a number of constituents asking me for action on this bill, notifying me that VPIRG had been persistently contacting them and urging them to contact me.  VPIRG is the largest nonprofit consumer and environmental advocacy organization in Vermont.  They are in the statehouse every single day, and in my committee more days then not.  To the best of my knowledge, they never even asked our Committee Chair, never mind me, if he would take this legislation up this year.  VPIRG does some good work including grassroots outreach.  Unfortunately, this is not my first experience with them misleading my constituents – unnecessarily I might add.  Thank you to the folks who reached out to me to ask me about this!

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We are starting to hear talk of coming back in October to address federal impacts on the Vermont budget.  There may be significant impacts to healthcare, education and environmental programs.   As soon as more is known definitively, I will share that information.

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I am honored to represent you in the Vermont Legislature.  In order to do so effectively, I need to hear from you about ideas, issues or opportunities.   My cell phone is 802-384-0233 and my email is lhsibilia@gmail.com.

Please stay in touch, and stay engaged,

 

Rep. Laura Sibilia
State Representative
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham