Today, the Agency of Education released its proposed statewide plan as required by Section 10 of Act 46.
Today the Agency of Education submitted the draft to the State Board of Education. The statewide plan is a recommendation from the Agency on what the Board should consider for each of the 43 “section 9” proposals that have been submitted from 88 towns and 93 school districts. Section 9 proposals are requests to the State Board of Education for Alternative Governance structures – these are mergers or non-mergers that do not meet the criteria laid out in Act 46.
In other words, these are the requests from districts that have not yet undertaken a merger through Act 46 and, in many cases, would like to be exempt from the requirements of the law. The Board has authority under Act 46 to require mergers – this plan is largely to inform how to make those decisions. The Board has until November 30th to finalize the plan.
In the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union both the Stamford and Searsburg proposals were accepted. In Windham Central Supervisory Union the Stratton proposal was accepted and the Windham proposal was NOT accepted.
Please let me know if you have questions on this map.
We just ended the 2nd week of a special session. Please look for an update on where we stand later this weekend.
Act 46 and School Choice updates: Last week I participated in a regional panel discussion on Act 46 sponsored by Marlboro Colleges Center for Creative Solutions alongside Brad James from the Agency of Education, Superintendents Ron Stahley and Dan French, Wilmington student Peyton Eisler and Whitingham student Kassidy Walkowiak. It is inspiring to have students voices engaged in the discussion about what the future education delivery system in our region should be.
Dover has recently voted to move forward and study becoming part of a side by side study with one or more districts. This means working with one or other districts to see if educational opportunities for kids can be improved by joining forces with another district. Though yet undetermined, the most likely districts for Dover to work with are Wardsboro and or Marlboro. Dover and Wardsboro operate pre-k through 6th grade and Marlboro operates pre-K through 8th grade. Any merged district is required to operate the same for all students under one unified budget, so in this case, if all three school districts merged, all students would likely retain school choice beginning either in the sixth or eight grade depending on the results of the study and the articles of agreement agreed to by the districts studying the merger. The final decisions to merge and approve the articles of agreement rest with the voters of each district. Searsburg, which does not operate a school and has complete school choice, is continuing to try to work with another geographically reasonable non-operating district to fulfill the requirements of Act 46. Readsboro and Stamford, which both operate pre-k through 8th grade, are part of a study committee with Halifax which also operates a pre-k through 8th grade. In all cases, in our district, school choice as it exists now is able to be preserved under the original language of Act 46 if the voters choose to do so.
You may have heard or seen that school choice is under threat from Act 46. Act 46 very stated that no town could be forced to give up school choice. Some towns in Vermont have recently given up school choice by vote of the residents.
Yield bill: The House passed H.843 which set the property tax yield at $9,701 and the income yield – for those that pay using income sensitivity – at $10,870. The penny rate is still used to calculate the nonresidential property tax for commercial property and second homes. Under the current education tax proposal, the rate would be reduced from $1.59 to $1.53 per $100 of assessed property value. H. 843 also changes the excess spending threshold from 121 percent to 119 percent. This is the old cost containment piece that almost exclusively impacts small and rural schools. Rep. Oliver Olsen (I) Londonderry, working with Rep. Ann Manwaring, myself and others, led an effort to postpone the re-engagement of
the excess spending thresholds until a study could be done to determine if changes needed to be made in other aspects of the funding system. He read from the course catalogues from several of Vermont’s high schools, highlighting the current inequities in opportunities between rural and more urban high school districts. This is the exact issue my constituents have have been raising for years. The House was determined to pass the excess spending thresholds, and so as a result, turned down Rep. Olsen’s amendment. However the next day, for the final reading of the bill, I led efforts to resurrect Rep. Olsen’s study language on how pupils are counted in an amendment that will study whether we need to be looking at a heavier weighting for students in lower population density areas. This amendment passed! Though the study will not be completed until 2017, it has the potential to FINALLY begin to assess whether or not equal funding is providing equal educational opportunities for students in districts of all sizes.
Independent Contractors: On March 11th, after 52 hours of testimony and almost as many witnesses, the House Commerce Committee voted out H.867, an independent contractor bill on a bipartisan 11-0 vote. On March 31st, the bill was sent back to our committee for additional work without the bill ever hitting the House floor for discussion or vote. Three amendments, sponsored on behalf of labor organizations, were proposed. Additional amendments are being worked on, including by a group of legislators I am working with. We have been told by House leadership that the narrowest opportunity still exists for a bill to make it through the House and Senate and to the Governor’s desk. The issue at hand: Currently in Vermont, nearly every person who is working is potentially required to be treated as an employee of someone else for the purposes of workers comp insurance. Even if the individual is an entrepreneur, and in business for themselves. At the same time, the owner(s) of a business can waive the requirement to purchase workers comp insurance for themselves. This situation is creating instability in the labor market with businesses and general contractors afraid to hire independent contractors for fear they will be charged with paying the independent contractors workers comp premiums through a state audit, and independent contractors having to forgo the benefits of being in business for themselves as most are required to be someone’s employee. This unpredictable and dated model does not support the entrepreneurial business climate we need to promote in Vermont. I hope we will be able to introduce modern independent contractor reforms that protect workers in this session.
Telecommunications Bill: This week our committee’s telecommunications bill, H.870 will be voted on in the House. This bill provides new funding for internet upgrades or expansions for schools, adds funding for news services for the blind, modifies Act 248a for telecommunications tower siting, and increase the Universal Service Fund tax by .05 cent. Additionally, telephone providers who wish to access high cost funding from the USF, will need to comply with telecommunications mapping data requests from the Department of Public Service. This is an exceptionally important provision for rural Vermont, including much of our district.
Whitingham connectivity meeting: A community wide public meeting with the Vermont Department of Public Service, Telecom and Connectivity Division and interested Whitingham citizens has been scheduled for April 18th at 5:30 pm in the main hall of the Jacksonville Municipal Center. The purpose of the meeting is to share data about existing broadband availability and broadband and cell projects and upcoming deployments happening in the Whitingham area. This public meeting will help inform the next steps in determining how Whitingham may choose to participate in expanding cell and broadband services in the town. The Connectivity Initiative Program run by the Department of Public Service, seeks to provide funding for hard to serve areas. More information on the DPS and their various programs is available at: http://publicservice.vermont.gov/topics/connectivity. The meeting is open to the public.
Tax and Budget bills: The preliminary budget, tax and fee bills have passed the House and gone to the Senate. These bills are required to originate in the House every year. It is very likely what passed the House will be changed, added to or subtracted from in the Senate. The bills will then come back to the House where we will either agree with the Senate changes, or ask for a conference committee to negotiate the differences. At that point the House and Senate will both vote yes or no on the recommendations from the conference committee. These will almost certainly be the last bills voted on before we adjourn. I voted in favor of the preliminary House budget, but not in favor of the preliminary tax bill. My budget vote explanation below:
“Mr. Speaker: I campaigned and arrived for my first biennium deeply concerned about the relationship between Vermont’s revenues and Vermont’s budget. I am still concerned. However, I believe there are not an abundance of easy or inconsequential choices to cut in front of us.
I voted to support this budget process, the inclusivness extended to the public and all members of the House, the commitment to examining each aspect of the budget to assess if it was serving Vermonters and how well, and the request for all committees to examine the programs within their jurisdiction and prioritize them. I voted for this budget because of the process and progress I believe the committee is making. Clearly there is still work to do. And clearly a budget needs to be paid for.
My vote on the tax bill this afternoon reflects lingering specific concerns I have with some of the specific tax increases. I am hopeful with amendments those concerns may be alleviated.”
Completely related to the budget and tax bill is a recently passed independent audit of Vermont Health Connect: No single issue has contributed more to our current budget situation then our Healthcare reform efforts and the expansion of medicaid. We want more access for Vermonters then we have been willing/able to pay for. Additionally, many legislators for many years have been calling for an independent review of Vermont Health Connect, the healthcare exchange access point which continues to plague Vermonter’s with challenges. Last week the House approved a $400K independent audit of the exchange and assessment of whether or not it should be abandoned. This independent will come back next December, in time for a new Governor, new Lt. Governor, new Speaker and many new legislators to utilize in determining how best to move forward.
We are three weeks in to the session, and a number of items are seeing some legislative action.
Of local importance, this week Wardsboro’s native Gilfeather Turnip made a significant step towards being named the Vermont State Vegetable after passing the House. Congratulations to the Wardsboro students who have testified in support of this significant piece of Wardsboro history and the Friends of the Wardsboro Library for their continued advocacy! My fellow Windham County Legislator Rep. Carolyn Partridge, Chair of the House Agriculture and forest Products Committee brought in enough turnips for lunch in the the State House Cafeteria. This week the bill, H.65 will be introduced in the Senate.
BUDGET and HEALTHCARE
On Thursday Governor Shumlin delivered his last budget address. The current year projections were for a 58 million dollar deficits, largely associated with having increased the number of Vermonters who are eligible for health care benefits through both the federal and state laws, but not increasing taxes to pay for the newly eligible recipients.
Last year the Governor proposed a .08 payroll tax to pay for the increased eligibility demands, but that tax was not supported by the Legislature. In the budget address Thursday, he proposed raising roughly
30 million in new taxes and fees and making 38 million in cuts to close this year’s budget gap. The taxes and fees are from a new provider tax on dentists and independent physicians as well as an increase in the registration fee for mutual funds. Proposed cuts included raising the income threshold for pregnant woman to qualify for medicaid, closing a prison work camp and reducing the number of out of state prison beds. By Friday the Governor’s office had changed it’s mind on removing the pregnant women from medicaid, so additional cuts will need to be proposed.
The healthcare situation is even more urgent due to inadequate medicaid reimbursement rates for healthcare providers, ambulance and other services. In fact last Monday many members of the Windham County delegation met with representatives from Deerfield Valley Rescue and Rescue Inc. and learned that Rescue Inc has recently had to reduce services due to the medicaid reimbursement situation. We were surprised to learn that medications given on ambulances are not reimbursable, nor are any responses that do not result in taking a patient to the hospital.
The first three weeks of the session have been a pointed reminder of just how little consensus there is with regard to how our education finance system works and how to reform it.
Last year the Legislature passed Act 46 which provided incentives for school districts to consolidate their boards. Consolidating school boards is intended to provide more equal opportunities for students. There was no consensus that consolidating school boards would save money in the short term, and only a “hope” by some that it would save money in the long term. And so there was general consensus that something additional had to be done last year to limit property tax increases. Per pupil spending caps were considered, as was a dramatic
lowering of an existing per pupil excess spending penalty threshold. These measures would have almost exclusively impacted the 5% of students and spending attributed to small schools.
The final cost containment piece that was included last year was a 2% allowable growth rate (AGR) threshold that varied according to your existing per pupil spending, and impacted all schools including those large and extra large schools responsible for 60% percent of the students and the statewide spending.
It is little surprise that putting downward pressure on the spending of almost all school districts in Vermont resulted in calls for repeal of the AGR. The Governor called for repeal of the AGR. The Senate indicated early on that they would be looking to repeal. However, the House leadership indicated that repeal was not likely. House Ed. Chairman Dave Sharpe floated the idea of a .09% increase in everyone’s AGR to account for uncontrollable costs like an 8% increase in health insurance premiums. All sides concurred that if any changes were to be made, they would need to be made right away when the legislature reconvened. School boards have to have budgets prepared in January and finalized for Town Meeting and Town Meeting Handbooks.
As expected, the Senate voted to repeal the AGR the second week of the session. The House discovered that the Agency of Education had given school districts the wrong AGR percentage and troubled over how to correct that for a bit. Watching my fellow lawmakers trying to find consensus on repealing, correcting or modifying the AGR reminded of the game twister. While most school budgets at this point have already been finalized, the relevant committees were turning themselves inside out trying to find a way forward that could win the approval of the whole House. While I genuinely admired the effort, it truly seems like many don’t really understand the budget timeline process our school boards are in. Next week we will vote on a bill that includes the .09% increase, holds the school districts harmless for the Agency of Education miscommunication, and reduces the overall penalty for going over the AGR from 100% to 25%.
Senator Diane Snelling has introduced language to amend the Vermont Constitution and have our Governors serve four year terms. One of the biggest challenges Vermont faces is the disincentive a two year term provides to creating and following long term strategies, and so I support this effort. Amending the constitution requires an affirmative vote of the Legislature in two different bienniums. So a vote this year, and a vote in 2017 or 2018, will allow for Vermonters to vote on the amendment in 2020.
A discussion with far reaching implications is happening at school board and community meetings across Vermont right now. The discussion, required by this past Legislative session’s Act 46 “the Unification Act”, is about things we all hold very dear, our children, our communities, and our future. In terms of public participation, this discussion still seems to be flying under the radar.
As a state, we have had some challenges with our education system prior to Act 46. The state education funding mechanism under Act 60 and Act 68 has enabled the creation of, in some cases very large, inequities of opportunity between small and large schools, while at the same time allowing for huge increases in spending. Our current statewide education funding mechanism is not based on what funding is need to provide equal educational opportunity, it is based on ensuring every child has access to the same level of spending (equal dollars) based on equalized state property tax rates. This has happened at the same time that significant national and rural state demographic challenges are impacting not only the size of our areas workforce but also our school age populations.The result of Act 60, Act 68 and the larger then rural Vermont demographic challenges we are facing is that some small schools, particularly smaller higher schools, cannot afford to provide appropriate educational opportunity for their students. That’s not acceptable.
Act 46 is not likely to lower taxes over the long term because it doesn’t fix the flaw in the education funding mechanism. It’s not going to fix the declining workforce and student population issue, because it is looking to shed net seats, not fill them. What Act 46 is seeking to do is consolidate school boards, thereby starting to ease some of the inequity of opportunity that our system currently holds. If your school board and my school board have to work together for both of our sets of students, we’re going to make sure “our” students receiving the same opportunities. Right?
The communities I represent in the legislature contain 4 small elementary schools with secondary choice, two non-operating school districts with K-12 choice, and part of the Twin Valley joint contract district. A quick count of school board meetings I’ve attended since the end of the session is in the sixty range. It’s in the seventies if you start adding in community discussions, school board members from other parts of Vermont or meetings with other legislators about Act 46. I’ll bet many of Vermont’s Legislators are spending a lot more time with their school boards since the passage of Act 46.
What I have been seeing and hearing from most boards and board members is a willingness to consider how and if they can improve opportunities for kids in light of Act 46. Many boards and Supervisory Union boards have also been meeting a lot more then they typically would. They are talking passionately about their community’s values, about what they want to save, about how to keep the state Board of Education from deciding what is best for their community (which is what happens in 2018 if communities refuse to comply). They are wrestling with how best to establish new governance partnerships with neighbors, or sometimes boards that aren’t neighbors. They are working on how to keep, eliminate, or establish school choice for their students. They are trying to understand a law which has some very significant flexibility in it, but also some significant incentives for acting quickly, and some pretty big sticks for failure to comply. There is much to know and learn.
I’m a long time school board member myself, and what I am seeing is an inspiring doubling down by board in their commitment to students and communities. Boards are stepping into the challenges created by Act 46, to try and find the best opportunities created by Act 46. This is not easy. They are being encouraged to “think big” and to “act fast” at the same time. I hope you will support the heavy lifting your boards are doing by staying informed of their discussions, as well as discussions at the statewide level. It is very easy to receive minutes from your local board meetings by contacting your Supervisory Union. School board meetings are open to the public, and every board I have spoken with would welcome more community participation. In addition to my contact info, you can find links to the legislation, the Vermont Agency of Education and your Supervisory Union at https://laurasibiliavt.com/act-46/
Something I have learned over and over is that the biggest opportunities often come right at the moment of greatest challenge. Whether we like the law or not, there is actually a once in a lifetime opportunity, right now, for our communities to re-imagine how we would devise an education system that could provide more opportunities for students and our communities.