Vermont’s extended session: reality vs. hyperbole

The Legislature continues in session overtime as a major fight about fairness in our education system continues to unfold.  Despite the dramatic headlines about the “assault” on employees and “stripping” collective bargaining away from school employees,  the most common question I am getting back home is an incredulous “why is this such a big problem?”.

Let’s first ground this ongoing discussion in some Vermont reality:

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 our rainbow of communities statewide. We have a state education finance system for which no single entity is accountable, 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.   On top of that,our entire education governance system in the midst of complete reorganization through Act 46, and the next few  years are going to find us paying the (tax) piper even more because of the tax incentives associated with Act 46.

To recap the current situation in Montpelier:

Because of changes that came about as part of the federal Affordable Care Act, Vermont’s Education Health Initiative (VEHI), changed all of the health insurance products offered to school districts for employee benefit plans.  This was done largely to avoid the “cadillac tax” that the ACA imposed on high cost employer sponsored healthcare plans: an annual 40% excise tax on plans with annual premiums exceeding $10,800 for individuals or $29,500 for a family starting in 2020.

Currently every school board in Vermont has to bargain the changes to employee health insurance benefits as part of regularly scheduled negotiations as a result of these new plans. On January 1, 2018, all school employees will be on the new health care plans.

On April 20, the Governor held a meeting with the Speaker of the House, President of the Senate, the VT-NEA, VSBA, and VSA in order to discuss a proposal to transition school employee health insurance negotiations to the state.

The Governor proposed to change the scope of bargaining at the local level to specify that health insurance negotiations for school employees would take place between the State and the VT-NEA.  This proposal is not a stripping teachers’ ability to collectively bargain.   Rather, it changes the dynamic and means the transition to new VEHI plans would be negotiated at the state level.  Contracts that have already settled locally would not be impacted.  If adopted, the plan could result in up to $13 million in savings to the Education Fund in FY 2018 and ultimately Vermonters, depending on the outcome of negotiations.

In Vermont, there is variety in total compensation provided to educators, depending on the region of the state and the socioeconomic makeup of a community.  In 2017, we have a unique opportunity to ensure equity in the health care coverage available to all school employees, while at the same time delivering the opportunity for millions of dollars in savings in property taxes.  Despite the fact that we have a statewide education property tax, enacted as part of Act 60 to ensure educational opportunity equity throughout Vermont, (required by our Vermont Constitution!) there are almost no mechanisms in place to ensure that equity is happening.

For decades lawmakers 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 mechanisms 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 undertakes an effort to “cut property taxes.”  It almost always revolves 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 in almost every other year, when state elected officials try to cut property taxes, we are instituting cuts that will be felt unequally, unpredictably, threaten program and staff cuts, and 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.  There are a number of shared resources at play in this current debate: the statewide education property tax, the incredible education staff throughout Vermont, and the dedicated, primarily volunteer, citizens serving on school boards throughout the state.  The notion that any one of those resources is controlled locally and only making decisions for its voters is a fallacy.  Every vote in every district impacts every other district in the state.  Every negotiation impacts other negotiations throughout the state.  The Governor’s proposal to lift healthcare negotiations to the state level is the very first proposal I can ever recall that looks to create a mechanism that will ensure that both investments and reductions in teachers healthcare will be felt equally by our dedicated education employees throughout the state.  Additionally, the Governor’s proposal presents an opportunity to achieve these savings without harming anyone. The proposal invests nearly $50 million back into educators to ensure they are not paying higher out of pocket costs.

The Governor’s proposal, to negotiate at the state level and modified slightly to return all savings to the Education Fund, was introduced in the House as the “Beck amendment” and failed in a tie vote.   I was a co-sponsor of the Beck amendment and spoke at length on the floor on behalf of my students, districts and taxpayers.  A second proposal by my House colleagues, the “Webb amendment” would have essentially maintained the status quo in individual district negotiations except that any savings a district realized would be collected at the state level and returned to the district as a grant.  This proposal was little more then an optical illusion in terms of changes to the status quo, did not include a mechanism to ensure there will indeed by savings, and provided no relief to school boards or help in negotiations.  The current proposal from the Senate withholds 6 months worth of the Governor’s estimated $26M in savings from districts on an individual district basis.  It does not require that those savings come from healthcare, and so the very real possibility is that those savings will come from educational programming for students.  And that we will be right back in the same place of assigning unpredictable and uneven cuts in our school districts statewide.

What we have in front of us is a proposal for statewide accountability of our statewide resources.  Through a statewide collective bargaining with employees, we have the ability to provide parity in benefits for ALL of our employees and accountability for ALL taxpayers.   When I am out in my communities they are demanding the accountability.  I am proud that Vermont’s Governor is requiring the parity that statewide bargaining can bring for all employees in addition to taxpayer accountability.

The Legislature will return to Montpelier tomorrow.  This is the second week over the regular session.  We have to pass a budget and resolve this standoff.  If you have not weighed in and you are reading this, I encourage you to do so.  This is really important.  You can find the links to contact your legislators, to call Governor Scott or to listen online at the Vermont Legislative webpage.  Call me at 802-384-0233 with questions, complaints or support.

Week ahead: paid family leave, ethics, property taxpayers and marijuana legalization

The coming week, presumably the final week of this year’s legislative session, is loaded with significant bills that will likely generate heated debate on the floor of the House.  My votes on these bills will be made after taking into consideration ALL of the language in the bill, as well as any amendments that may pass, any fiscal analysis that has been done, and what I am hearing from constituents.  I encourage you to monitor the daily calendar for potential legislative activity and to be in touch with concerns or information you want to ensure I’m considering.

H.196 PAID FAMILY LEAVE: The proposed legislation will direct Vermont to develop a state run family and medical leave insurance program for public and private sector employees in the state.  Enrollment by employees is mandatory, even if already covered by a paid family leave plan. The program is estimated to require $5.4M in administrative costs to create.  Self-employed individuals, small farmers with a payroll under $20,000, and federal employees are exempt and will neither pay into, nor collect, any benefit.

Qualifying conditions include:

  • Pregnancy, birth, adoption, foster (both maternal and paternal).
  • Serious illness or non-work related injury of the employee’s close family member.

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Maximum duration of paid benefit: Up to 6 weeks. Compensation: 80% wages up to a cap of 2x the livable wage ($13 per hour), as calculated by the Vermont Joint Fiscal Office.

Employees would have to have been employed for at least 12 of the previous 13 months to qualify for the insurance program.  The insurance program will be financed by a 0.141% payroll deduction (up to $150,000 in wages) paid for by the employee by default with the option for employers to pay all or a portion of the cost.

Employers would need to protect an employee’s job while they are out on qualifying leave unless:

  • The employee works for an employer with fewer than 10 employees.
  • The position was going to be terminated prior to the employee’s request,
  • The employee would have been laid off for reasons unrelated to the leave,
  • The employee performed a unique service and hiring a permanent employee to replace the employee was necessary to prevent substantial economic injury to the employer’s operation

The program would be administered by the VT Department of Labor (DOL).  If the DOL denies an employee claim for paid family leave, employees can appeal in court.

S.8 ETHICS BILL:  The bill requires increased financial disclosures by candidates for stock-photo-info-text-graphic-ethic-145461094elected office and executive branch employees and their spouses as well as a one year time lapse for former legislators or executive branch employees prior to employment as a lobbyist.  S.8 would also establish a State Ethics Commission to implement and enforce State ethics laws for current and former legislators, State Executive officers, and candidates for State and legislative office. The Commission would consist of five members and would be staffed by an Executive Director who would work half-time.  There is some concern by legislators about a potential invasion of privacy of spouses in this legislation; nonetheless, I wholeheartedly support the very modest ethics legislation passed out of the Government Operations Committee.

H.509 AMENDMENT TO SAVE PROPERTY TAXPAYERS 26 MILLION:  Vermont’s school employees receive health coverage through the Vermont Education Health Initiative (VEHI). Actuarial analysis of current VEHI plans indicates they have among the highest actuarial values of any health insurance plan offered in the State of Vermont. Premiums for VEHI plans are up to nine percent higher than those for a BlueCross BlueShield platinum plan offered through Vermont Health Connect.

In response, VEHI is replacing existing school employee health insurance plans with plans designed to be competitive with Vermont Health Connect.  This change means that, as of January 1, 2018, all school employees will be on new health care plans.  The new health plans cover the same health care services and networks, but they have lower premium costs. The savings associated with lower premiums is estimated to be as high as $75 million.

The new plans also create higher out-of-pocket exposure through deductibles and co-payment requirements. However, because the premiums for these plans are markedly lower, there are opportunities to keep employees’ out-of-pocket costs at current levels while also realizing up to $26 million in savings.

These new plans have made health insurance negotiations more complex. In at least 20 supervisory unions, the parties have declared impasse over the inability to negotiate the transition to new health insurance plans.  The State of Vermont is uniquely positioned to bargain health care benefits and coverage with school employees in a manner that ensures fairness and equity for school employees and delivers savings for property taxpayers.  Governor Scott, the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the Vermont Superintendent’s Association have all come out publicly in favor of moving these negotiations to the state level.

Believe it or not, virtually every year the Vermont Legislature tries to enact property tax reforms.  Our education financing system is only able to deliver somewhat predictable outcomes on the tax collection side of the equation which the state controls.  Efforts to cut education spending at the state level are impossible to do if you want to know how individual students, classes or districts will be impacted (even though the Vermont imageConstitution arguably requires us to know those impacts) .  This impossibility is because spending is controlled at the individual district level.   The unique situation that has presented itself with the VEHI change in plans presents a once in a lifetime opportunity for Vermont to act as a state to save ALL property taxpayers and to also know (for once!) that there will not be negative impacts to individual students, classes or districts as a result of that action.

Governor Scott has indicated he will veto the budget if the Legislature doesn’t find a way to capture these significant savings.  I have co-sponsored an amendment that would move teacher healthcare bargaining to the state level.  My final vote on the budget will be dependent on two things regarding this bargaining proposal:

  1. That we approve moving healthcare negotiations for school employees to the state level.
  2. That we return ALL of the savings achieved by taking this action to the taxpayers and do not use the savings to pay for additional programs/costs put into the education fund.  Both the Governor and the Senate have proposed putting additional programs into the education fund this session.


H.170 POSSESSION AND CULTIVATION OF MARIJUANA BY A PERSON 21 YEARS OF AGE OR OLDER 
The intent of this bill is to eliminate all penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana for a person who is 21 years of age or older while retaining civil and criminal penalties for possession of larger amounts of marijuana and criminal penalties for unauthorized dispensing or sale of marijuana.  This bill allows for cultivation of up to three mature marijuana plants.  This act also retains civil penalties for possession of marijuana by a person under 21 years of age, which are the same as for possession of alcohol by a person under 21 years of age.  This bill does not allow for the regulation and taxing of marijuana sales.image

In November 2016, voters in Massachusetts and Maine approved possession and cultivation of marijuana for personal use by adults 21 years of age or older.  In July 2018, both states will begin to allow retail sales of marijuana and marijuana-infused products through licensed stores.  Canada is expected to act favorably on legislation legalizing marijuana possession and cultivation for adults 18 years of age or older and federal administration officials have cited the summer of 2018 as the date at which licensed retail stores will begin selling marijuana and marijuana-infused products to the public.

Legalization and legal markets adjacent to Vermont will increase costs in Vermont enforcement of impaired driving; particularity in areas close to the MA border and with large amounts of tourism traffic; like our district.  Whether or not Vermont acts to legalize, there is no increased revenue to offset the costs associated with the expected increase in impaired driving, or youth prevention.

The Senate has passed a full tax and regulate with home grow policy.

The House is expected to vote on H.170 in this final week.  It has been improved to prohibit use in child care establishments (over 50% are home based).   I am currently working on an amendment to require a Commission be established to produce a full tax and regulate policy.  Regardless as to my personal belief on marijuana legalization, I do believe Vermont needs to be able to address the impacts of legislation in adjacent states and countries.

This last week will likely be very busy and also have periods of very little activity as we wait for the senate or conference committees to act.   The very best means of reaching me this week, in addition to emailing lhsibilia@gmail.com, is likely through text (please tell me who you are!) at 1-802-384-0233.  I may only receive late in the evening or very early morning.   Alternatively, you can call the Sergeant at Arms office at 802-828-2228 and ask them to have me call you.

AND, speaking of the Sergeant at Arms, a reminder for any students who will be entering eighth grade next year – you can apply to be a (paid!) legislative page next winter by September 30th 2017.  The details on this 6 week program can be found at http://legislature.vermont.gov/the-state-house/civic-education/become-a-legislative-page/ .  For any parents of students who are interested, I am happy to answer questions on the process and experience.  I would highly encourage mature 8th graders with an interest in civics and how our government works to apply!

Kind regards,

Rep. Laura H. Sibilia

 

 

 

 

 

2017 Town Meeting update

Town Meeting Update March 2017

presentation1It’s an honor to represent you in our State Legislature and to communicate the activities of the General Assembly to you in this Town Meeting update.

BUDGET: Governor Scott has provided a 7.93B budget to the Legislature which outlines his priorities for the state.  Included were increases for early childhood education, higher education, workforce training and housing.  The Governor proposed paying for cradle through college services through the state’s education fund, proposed increased efficiencies and effectiveness opportunities through combining the agencies of Commerce and Labor as well as the Liquor and Lottery Commissions.  These proposals have been met with varying degrees of pushback in the Legislature,including a significant increase proposed to the property tax and some concerns about ensuring worker protections.  I have voiced my opposition to both the Governor’s office and to our house leadership regarding increases to the property tax resulting from added services being paid for out of the education fund. The House Appropriations Committee has been working through the proposals and has hosted public hearings around the state to gather feedback.  We will vote on the House’s proposed budget in the coming weeks, and then the process will move to the Senate.

EDUCATION:  Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcomb has been reappointed by Governor Scott to lead the Agency of Education.  ACT 46 Many legislators in the House support consideration of a number of changes to Act 46, including clarity around alternative structures and increased time for districts, through H.15.  There has been resistance by the education committees toward making any changes to Act 46 prior to Town Meeting when a number of merger votes will take place, but the Senate Education Committee has been working on a bill that would increase Act 46 timelines if certain criteria are met and provided more flexibility in establishing a side by side district.  Education Finance I have been named to an Education Finance Committee Speaker Mitzi Johnson has established.  We have been told that our goal is to produce options for changes to the financing mechanism for next year.  This year, we have at least six different education finance proposals.  Along with Rep. Olsen, Rep. Long and Reps. Gannon, I have co-sponsored H.183  which proposes a temporary funding solution for school districts with declining student enrollment like Twin Valley and Leland and Gray.  I have also proposed H.274 which asks the Agency of Education to make a recommendation on the addition of a school district population density factor to the weighting factors used to determine equalized pupil counts, an outline of the minimum high schools located in rural Vermont should be required to have, and an opinion on the consequences of schools in rural Vermont closing.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS: New Committee  This year the house created a new committee, Energy and Technology, to provide greater focus for both telecommunications and IT projects.  This is the committee I have been placed on for the next two years.  Act 248a We have been working on H.250 which reauthorizes Act 248a for three more years.  248a was enacted to provide an easier means of erecting telecommunications technology then Act 250.  My colleague Rep. Yantachka has written a helpful brief history of Act 248a.  Telecom Plan I’ve also introduced H.347 which seeks to have the Vermont 10 year Telecommunications Plan developed in consultation with Education, Healthcare and Public safety agencies, in addition to Commerce.  Locally I have been working with the Department of Public Service and CoverageCo, a company contracted to delivery limited cellular services to communities isolated during T.S. Irene.  Both Readsboro and Whitingham have these sites operational, though in some cases the placement has not been optimal.  Wardsboro was to have two sites which to date have not been installed.  We are working with the company to do some Town Meeting surveying to better inform next steps.  Along with Rep. Chip Conquest, I’ve introduced H.459, a bill looking to help municipalities finance telecommunications infrastructure projects.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Much of this year’s focus in economic development is on workforce training and recruitment needs and career and technical training.  There are also a number of communities who are looking to lift the limit on the number of Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) Districts in the State.  TIFs are a municipal infrastructure financing tool, used widely throughout the country.  In Vermont, almost all TIFs exist in Chittenden County, and there is a ban on establishing any new districts.  In my committee we have been looking at what impact energy storage can have both on helping us achieve our renewable energy goals and on providing more stability to the energy grid.  Our neighbors are getting ahead of us in developing storage which could have negative impacts for Vermont ratepayers in the future.

ON THE HORIZON:   Paid family leave insurance program, $15 minimum wage, marijuana decriminalization, and a fight over how to pay for the cleanup of Lake Champlain.

FEDERAL IMPACTS ON STATE:  There are a number of federal impacts to workforce, education, healthcare that are being carefully monitored by both Governor Scott’s Administration and the Vermont Legislature.  It is not clear how our budget, heavily dependent on federal funding, may be impacted by changes to healthcare.   Working with Governor Scott, both the House and Senate have bills which address possible over reaches by the federal government with our law enforcement personnel and with the collection of personal information.  H.228 has passed the Senate 30-0 and is likely to be voted on in the House this week.  More information on what these bills do and do not do can be found on my website www.laurasibilivavt.com 

I look forward to seeing folks at town Meeting and over the town Meeting week legislative break.  As always, don’t hesitate to call me 802-384-0233 or email if I an answer questions or be of assistance.

Kind regards,

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

 

2017 Windham-Bennington District Town Meeting Information

2017 Windham-Bennington District Town Meeting Information

Times and locations for our districts Town Meeting and Australian Ballot items are belowAct 46 Australian ballot votes and other notable Town Meeting education articles are in green.   On Monday night March 6th, I’ll be traveling to all of the Bennington County Towns, starting with Searsburg, then Stamford, then ending in Readsboro. On Tuesday March 7th, town Meeting day, I’ll be accompanied by Windham County Senator Becca Balint as I travel to our Windham County Towns beginning with Wardsboro’s Town Meeting, then Dover and ending in Whitingham.

Additional INFORMATIONAL meetings:

  • Twin Valley Joint School District Informational Meetings will be held on Tuesday February 28th at 7 pm at Twin Valley Elementary in Wilmington and on Thursday March 2nd at 7 pm at Twin Valley Middle high School in Whitingham
  • Dover, Wardsboro and Marlboro Act 46 Study Committee final meeting on Monday March 27th at Dover Town Hall (next to the Dover Free Library) at 6:30 PM
  • Dover Candidates Forum Tuesday February 28th at 6:15 pm Dover Town Hall
  • Dover Pre-Town Meeting Tuesday February 28th at 7:00 pm Dover Town Hall

Stamford

Stamford Elementary School
Town Meeting: Monday March 6th at 7 p.m. Warning
School District Meeting: Monday March 6th at 7:30 pm Warning
Australian Ballot: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

  • Stamford town officers
  • Stamford school district officers

Readsboro

Readsboro School Auditorium
Town and School District Meeting: Tuesday March 6th at 7:00 p.m. Warning
Australian ballot: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

  • Readsboro town officers
  • Readsboro school district officers

Searsburg

Searsburg Town Office
Town and School District Meeting: Tuesday March 6th at 7:00 p.m.

Wardsboro

Wardsboro Town Hall
School District Meeting: Monday March 6th at 6:30 p.m.
Town Meeting: Tuesday March 7th at 9 a.m. Warning
Australian ballot open 10:00 a.m. 7:00 p.m.

  • Act 46 merger
  • Wardsboro town officers
  • Wardsboro school district officers
  • Unified School District officers

Dover

Dover Town Hall on Dover Common
Town and School District Meeting: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. Warning
Australian ballot open 10:00 a.m. 7:00 p.m.

  • Act 46 merger
  • Dover town officers
  • Dover school district officers
  • Unified School District officers

Whitingham

Twin Valley Middle/High School
Town Meeting: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. Warning

  • Article 32: Shall the town raise and appropriate 100,000 to the litigation fund in the event we need to litigate with the state due to the inequality of the education tax

School District Meeting: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m Warning
Australian Ballot: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

Govenor Scott’s budget recommendations

Governor Scott released his first recommended state budget for Vermont today.  He prefaced his comments by pointing to Vermont’s shrinking workforce as our single largest obstacle – I wholeheartedly agree.  His budget proposed a massive realignment of our education system to include early education and childcare as well as post secondary education, and innovative realignments at the Agency of Comerce and Department of Commerce.  True to his word, he delivered a budget without an increase in taxes or fees, and which takes a fresh look at how government is best organized to serve Vermonters. It is the second part that I most appreciate, because we can’t level fund and protect the most vulnerable if we don’t examine how we are currently operating for opportunities to innovate.

The Governor has proposed a radical relook at our education system.  He has proposed funding school districts at their FY 2017 district spending levels and holding median property tax bills to their current FY 2017 levels.  I know at least one of my rural districts, currently looking at a .50 property tax increase despite cutting their budget by 750K, would very much like for this proposal to be possible.  The Governor has also asked school boards, a number of whom have already finalized their budgets, to go back and sharpen their pencils in order to come back with level funded budgets.  In order to accommodate that work, the Governor has proposed that all school budgets be voted on on May 28th, four months from today’s budget address.  I hope to meet with the Administration in the coming days to understand how they envision this working with the myriad pending Act 46 votes and whether or not they are supporting an extension of any of the Act 46 deadlines as a result of this proposal.  

Governor Scott has also proposed significant additional programs for Vermont’s property taxpayers to fund.  We do not currently have an education system that can be easily modified to do what the Governor has recommended and maintain equity.  The system we do have is in the process of a massive and historic reorganization.  Here is a link to the Governor’s budget recommendations. I will be reading these recommendations with an open mind, remembering that Vermont students have equal protection under the law provided for them in the Vermont Constitution and that the property tax burden is largely considered to be untenable at current rates.

The Governor has also proposed that non-Medicaid eligible clients be able to bypass the Vermont Health Connect system to enroll with the healthcare provider of their choice, needed increases in funds for opiate treatment, investments in workforce housing, closing the Windsor work camp, a scholarship program for Vermont National Guardsman, and an entrepreneurial reorganization of Vermont’s Commerce and Labor entities.

The House Appropriations Committee has announced a series of public hearings on the Governor’s proposed budget. The full schedule is linked here, but the Southern Vermont hearing will be Feb 13th in Bellows Falls at the Windham Antiques Center at 6 pm.  After reviewing the Governors recommend budget, consider either attending this hearing, or submitting written comments.  Do you love the Governor’s proposals, or think you have a better idea?  It actually does matter and your voice will be considered.

First weeks in the Vermont House

“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

On Wednesday January 3rd the 2017 Legislative Session opened.  Among the first items to take place were elections of new leaders for the Vermont Legislature.  In the House, Rep. Mitzi Johnson of South Hero was elected to serve as the new Speaker of the House.  In the last biennium, Rep. Johnson was the Chair of House Appropriations.

Timg_6373he Speaker assigns all members of the house to various committees which is where the bulk of our work is done during the legislative session.  This year a few of the committees were modified, and a new committee focusing on Energy and Technology was created.  This committee will have jurisdiction over both the Public Service Board and the Department of Public Service, energy, IT projects, and telecommunications.   This is the committee I will serve on for the next two years.  I’m really pleased we now have a committee tasked with focusing on state technology infrastructure and Vermonters telecommunications needs.

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Issues that look likely to receive some attention this year include financing water quality improvements, health care finance, universal

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background checks, State Board of Education rule-making authority, marijuana decriminalization, paid family leave, Act 46 timelines, Housing and 10 yr telecom plan.  We’ll know in May which of these or other issues were able to move through the legislative bodies.

I have been spending much of my time on local transportation challenges, broadband and cell access, government transparency and school finance issues in our district, region and state.

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Just after the election I was honored to be asked to Co-Chair an advisory committee for incoming Governor Phil Scott.  This committees charge was to assist in bringing forward names of individuals who shared Governor Scott’s vision of affordability and service to work in his administration.  Hundreds of names were placed into consideration and the new cabinet is filling out.   There are also a number of Boards and Commissions posts to be filled in the coming year.  If you are interested in serving in one of those posts, more information is available here: http://governor.vermont.gov/boards-commissions

img_6379Governor Phil Scott will propose a budget on January 24th.  Just after being sworn in, he signed four executive orders, establishing his strategic priorities, and creating teams in support of his efforts to address the opiate epidemic and modernize state government.

 Executive Order 01-17, “Governor’s Strategic Goals,” directs all State agencies and departments to utilize their powers, duties and programs to establish strengthening the Vermont economy, making Vermont more affordable, and protecting vulnerable Vermonters, as cornerstones of their strategic and operational goals.

Executive Order 02-17, establishes the Opiate Coordination Council and also creates the position of Director of Drug Policy, who will act as the executive director of the Council to support, coordinate and monitor its progress.

Executive Order 03-17 established the Government Modernization and Efficiency Team (GMET). Executive Order 04-17 created the Program to Improve Vermonter Outcomes Together (PIVOT), which will be tasked with implementing and tracking progress of the

The Vermont School Boards Association maintains a map of progress with links to Act 46 study committees work around the state http://www.vtvsba.org/#!act-46-map/q4i59

The Vermont School Boards Association maintains a map of progress with links to Act 46 study committees work around the state

recommendations issued by GMET.

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The Dover, Marlboro, Wardsboro merger study committee is in the midst of hosting a number of public meetings.  These are important opportunities for our taxpayers, parents and students to ask questions and provide feedback on the proposed merger in advance of a vote at this year’s Town Meeting.  The public hearing dates are open to anyone from the any of the towns:

  • January 12  6:30pm – 8pm Marlboro Elementary School
  • January 19  6:30pm – 8pm  Dover Town Hall
  • January 23  6:30pm – 8pm  Wardsboro Town Hall
  • February 2  6:30pm – 8pm Wardsboro Town Hall
  • February 13 6:30pm – 8pm Marlboro Elementary School
  • February 27 6:30pm – 8pm Dover Town Hall

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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.

Vermont Board of Ed looking at choice tuition dollars

Back in September I noted that the State Board of Education had elected to begin looking at the rules allowing independent and private schools to access public dollars:

5988599“With regard to the various levels of school choice that currently exist in the Valley, Section 4 of Act 46 specifically states that compliant districts cannot be forced to give up their existing school choice and that nothing in the Act is intended to take away school choice.  It is important to note that a school district’s voters still have the ability to decide to change or alter school choice.  The State Board of Education has elected to begin looking at the existing rules which allow independent and private schools to access public dollars.  The Vermont School Boards Association, of which I am a board member, has testified that independent schools should be required to be held to a number of the same standards as public schools.   A change in the rules of how independent/private schools can access public funding would require public meetings.   To monitor this discussion, watch meetings, read materials and minutes presented at meetings go to http://education.vermont.gov/state-board

The SBE is now considering a rule which would require independent and private schools to meet ALL of the requirements of public schools.  This is a dramatic change, using a dramatic method in a period of massive system change in our education governance via Act 46.

Regions which have a larger number of districts with school choice have been slow to implement Act 46.  In particular, many of the more rural and mountainous regions of Southern Vermont and the Northeast Kingdom have not yet voted on new governance changes, despite continual compliance efforts since Act 46 implementation. The timing of this far reaching rule change is hard to understand given Act 46 specifically providing communities that have school choice the option to keep it.  Changing the game on communities working to implement this sweeping legislation is unacceptable.  Doing so without having any sense of the impacts on kids is inexcusable.

Rep. Oliver Olsen of Londonderry has sent a formal request to the state board and the rules committee seeking a delay in the rule making process until a number of impact analysis can be undertaken.  I wholeheartedly support this request.

If this rule making continues forward, public hearings will be required prior to adoption of the new rules. I will keep you apprised of this hearing or hearings and ask that you please be prepared to attend and testify.

I am incredibly proud of the work our communities are doing to assess if there are more opportunities for their kids by complying with Act 46.  This action by the state board should not deter our communities from completing the work called for in Act 46.

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Please remember that the Agency of Education (NOT the State Board) will be at Twin Valley Middle High School in Whitingham at 5:30 pm on Thursday November 3rd to explain to the communities the resources available to help with the Act 46 process and getting the WSWSU Articles of Agreement accepted.

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As always, if you need help or assistance don’t hesitate to call me at 384-0233 or email at lhsibilia@gmail.com.

Rep. Manwaring endorses Sibilia for re-election

Ann has been a trusted friend and mentor for almost 20 years – I am grateful I was able to serve my first term while she was still in the House and I will miss her in the coming years.  I’m honored to have her endorsement.  Even though we have occasionally disagreed on policy, we have always been a united team in our dedication to high quality education, helping the people of our little valley towns and the great state of Vermont!

September 13, 2016
To the Editor:

Summer is over way too fast and it is now election season for real, and even though many of us believe that our national election can’ t be over soon enough, we do have local elections which are important to all of us.  Early voting has started where we can now ask our Town Clerks for absentee ballots either by mail or by stopping by the Town offices.

Laura and Ann at last weeks legislative issues forum in Dover

Laura and Ann discussing the upcoming session at last weeks legislative issues forum in Dover.

As you consider whom to vote for to represent you in the Vermont House of Representatives for the next two years, I would like to share with you that I support the re-election of Laura Sibilia to serve for another term Representing Voters in Dover, Wardsboro, Searsburg, Sommerset, Readsboro and Stamford and a portion of Whitingham.

Even before Laura was elected to Represent your District two years ago she and I had worked extensively on issues concerning Vermont’s education system, specifically issues that affect our small rural communities.  It won’t surprise any one reading this that Vermont public education and its financing framework is a complex system, and sometimes we were able to shape good things and sometimes the job was to keep bad things from happening. There is so much more work to do, and I have enormous respect for her knowledge, understanding and commitment to keep this issue in the forefront on her time and energy in Montpelier.

But that’s not all.  In addition she takes to Montpelier her considerable experience and skills around economic development in Windham and Bennington Counties.

Laura hit the ground running in her first term, and I believe the voters in her District would be well served by sending her back to Montpelier for a second term.  I am sorry I won’t be returning to Montpelier, but I hope to continue to work with her from home.

Thank your for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Ann Manwaring, Representing the neighboring

District of Halifax, Whitingham and Wilmington

Act 46 update– Rep. Laura Sibilia

Many will recall that Acts 60 of 1997 and Act 68 of 2003 were the result of the Vermont Supreme Court having struck down the previous state-funding system and directing the legislature to come up with a new system that would eliminate the inequities among the local school districts.  The legislature did this by establishing a statewide property tax to pay for the education of all students.  The rationale was that towns with wealthy grand lists – lots of businesses and second home owners – could spend more on their students then towns with very few businesses or second home owners on their grand list.  The financing mechanism created by Act 60 put in place put an equalized property tax of all properties in Vermont, income sensitized it for residents and over time the legislature has enacted policies to narrow the gap between education spending per pupil between communities, with the goal of promoting greater equity.

act46 bridgeAct 46, the “Unification” plan for school districts was passed during the 2015 session and its general premise was to reduce inequities across the state by asking individual districts that operate the same grades, to partner with their neighbors and form bigger units.  If you and I join our school boards together, now your students and my students become “our students” and we will ensure that “our students” have the same opportunities.  There are obvious questions here about why the massive increases in education spending spurred by Act 60 did not fix the inequity of opportunity problem that spawned the Brigham lawsuit.   While that discussion has by no means ended, it is not the subject of this column.   With this update I intend to provide parents, residents (full time and weekend) and businesses with information about how to keep track of the Act 46 education reform which is taking shape through our valley.

To start, I am maintaining a page with links about the law Act 46, guidance provided by the Agency of Education and the Vermont School Boards Association on my website at https://laurasibiliavt.com/act-46/

act 46 map

The Vermont School Boards Association maintains an interactive map of progress with links to Act 46 study committees work around the state http://www.vtvsba.org/#!act-46-map/q4i59

Act 46 implementation progress across Vermont is happening unevenly – since the passage of Act 46 there have been a number of district merger votes, but none yet in southern Vermont and only a few successful votes in the Northeast Kingdom.  This is likely due to a number of factors including topography, distance, population, economy, more variations in how schools operate and more variations in choice then in the Champlain Valley.  Though there have been no votes in southern Vermont, work is being done, and in our valley work has been underway since the passage of Act 46.

We have two Supervisory Unions for the greater Deerfield Valley area.  Windham Southwest Supervisory Union (WSSU) includes the joint contract districts of Wilmington and Whitingham which provide K-12 education for all of their students, Halifax, Readsboro and Stamford which maintain K-8 schools and offer school choice for students in 9-12 and Searsburg which has choice for students K-12.  Windham Central Supervisory Union (WCSU) includes Leland and Gray Union High School whose member towns Jamaica, Newfane, Brookline, Townshend and Windham all send their middle and high school students to.  Each of those sending schools also maintain a K-6 elementary school.  Also in Windham Central Supervisory Union are Dover and Wardsboro school districts which maintain K-6 schools with school choice for students 7-12, and Marlboro which operates a K-8 with choice fro grades 9-12.

The WSSU has submitted articles of agreement to the Vermont Agency of Education for Stamford, Readsboro and Halifax school districts to merge governance (boards and budgets).  If the Agency approves those articles, they will then be put to a vote in each town.  The WSSU vote is currently slated for this November.  You can monitor the WSSU activity at http://www.windhamsw.k12.vt.us/

Over the summer, two study committees have formed in the WCSU.  One is considering combining all of the boards and budgets of the Leland and Gray Union towns and the other is considering the consolidation of boards and budgets in Dover, Marlboro and Wardsboro.  These study groups are working towards a timeline that would have a vote in the towns at or around Town Meeting day in March 2017.  You can monitor the WCSU activity, including videotaped study committee meetings, at http://www.windhamcentral.org/home

In the WSSU and the WCSU there are also two non-operating districts, Searsburg and Stratton who have been engaged in discussions with other non-operating districts in other Supervisory Unions about consolidating their boards and budgets.

School districts that do not merge with another school district are required to propose they operate as an alternative district.  The State Board of Education has recently provided guidance for districts that are considering this path forward.  The requirements for proposing an alternative structure are stricter then proposing a merging of boards and budgets.  The guidance for districts that do not voluntarily merge can be found here http://education.vermont.gov/documents/edu-sbe-guidance-alternative-structures-act46-7-2016.pdf

With regard to the various levels of school choice that currently exist in the Valley, Section 4 of Act 46 specifically states that compliant districts cannot be forced to give up their existing school choice and that nothing in the Act is intended to take away school choice.  It is important to note that a school district’s voters still have the ability to decide to change or alter school choice.  The State Board of Education has elected to begin looking at the existing rules which allow independent and private schools to access public dollars.  The Vermont School Boards Association, of which I am a board member, has testified that independent schools should be required to be held to a number of the same standards as public schools.   A change in the rules of how independent/private schools can access public funding would require public meetings.   To monitor this discussion, watch meetings, read materials and minutes presented at meetings go to http://education.vermont.gov/state-board

Very important conversations and votes about how we think about and provide for the education of students in the Valley are happening.  There is no greater reflection of our community’s vitality and values then how we provide for our children’s education.  Please join me in participating in as many of these conversations as possible and ensuring the Valley maintains high quality education for all of our students.