I attended the Vermont State Board of Education hearing on September 19, 2018 at Green Mountain Union High School, Chester, VT. This hearing was for the State Board to hear from districts prior to deciding what to do with those that didn’t opted to merge voluntarily.
The 95 districts that didn’t merge submitted alternative plans, or Section 9 proposals, to the Agency of Education for consideration. Stamford/Clarksburg Interstate group testified.
In June, Acting Education Secretary Heather Bouchey recommended 18 forced mergers. She recommended the remaining unmerged districts not consolidate – due to mergers being impractical or legally impossible – or that they continue with processes already underway. The state board has a final plan due on Nov. 30.
Testimony took place all day with many districts that have been unable to secure a vote to merge from their electorate advocating those votes be respected. Local votes should be respected, particularly on matters limited to that community. Since he passage of Act 60 twenty years ago, education decisions in Vermont very seldom impact only one community.
I provided testimony to the state board which can be read below.
Thank you for allowing me to testify today.
There are a number of points of view I am bringing to this testimony, but to be clear I am testifying today as the State Representative of the Windham-Bennington District.
I’m the oldest of 12 siblings whose lives were measurably improved by the staff of a small rural public school in Whitingham. I would note that is a school district which has since been merged for over 10 years with Wilmington
I’m a mom of three and I invested my treasure, my children, in my community school and that Twin Valley merged district – my girls have graduated from college and my son will head to college in another 2 years
I’m a 17 year member of the Dover School Board which will meet for its final time at this year’s Town Meeting
I’m a one year member of the new River Valleys Unified Board for the merged districts of Dover and Wardsboro, a member of the Windham Central Supervisory Union Board and a four year member of the Vermont School Board Association Board for Windham County School Boards
An elected member of Vermont’s General Assembly who surprised many by voting for Act 46. I did so because I was convinced that our rural schools and students were in trouble. Every single one of my geographically isolated and rural towns has complied with Act 46 resulting in 3 completed mergers, one interstate merger in process and one standalone non operational district. They are all working many many hours to find improved educational benefits for their students.
I hold a private sector job which assesses demographic and economic data for the Windham And Bennington Region – who it should be noted are working together – and the two counties are in the midst of planning strategies to work together to repopulate and reinvigorate the economy in Southern Vermont
I’m also a resident of the Town of Dover. The fourth largest sending Town to the state education fund.
I want to remind you that Vermonters did not get a vote on whether or not they wanted to change how we pay for education after constitutional violations were found in Brigham. Our courts and the legislature – with their statewide view and constitutional imperative – decided for Vermonters because, in Vermont, all students are to be afforded substantially equitable education opportunities no matter where you live.
I want to remind you that Vermont business taxpayers are making huge investments in education for students all throughout the state – without being able to vote on the budgets.
And I want to remind you that students living in poverty, students living in fragile family circumstance, or in towns losing population, students attending schools in places where they can’t access internet, after-school programs, foreign language, or where they don’t have consistently competent boards, top notch administrators or low staff turnover – these students don’t get to vote.
The conditions that created the need for Act 46, chiefly declining population, still exist and in some places, like Southern Vermont, they are accelerating in younger age cohorts. The activity that has taken place to date in the BRSU and along Route 100 and Route 30 have been and continue to be significant for those communities – but that activity alone is not going to fix the inequities or bring greater fiscal accountability to this state funded system.
Please remember – you have a responsibility to all of the kids and the kids don’t get to vote.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 802-384-0233.
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.
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 email@example.com or phone at 802-384-0233
Rep. Laura Sibilia
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham
PO Box 2052
West Dover, VT 05356
The final Budgetand 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 from 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 funding 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
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 BrokersH.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 blocking 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.
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 design 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 PayH.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 old 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.
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:
Provide regulatory relief for the forest products industry and for additional ways to support their industry.
Expand high speed, broadband technology into rural Vermont to give communities the opportunity to participate in today’s economy.
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.
2019 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
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.