Education Laws Examined By Two Studies

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(Host) Vermont’s education funding laws will be getting scrutiny from two sources over the next few months.

The state has hired a consultant to study the impact of Acts 60 and 68, and whether they’ve succeeded in equalizing learning opportunities across the state.

And now the towns of Dover and Wilmington — which have long considered the funding system unfair — are commissioning their own study.

VPR’s Susan Keese has the story.

(Keese) The education funding laws date back to a 1997 decision by the Vermont Supreme Court. The decision said differences in towns’ ability to pay for education had led to inequalities in access to learning opportunities for Vermont children.

State Senator Ann Cummings chairs the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee. She says before the law changed, many property-rich resort towns enjoyed good schools and low taxes, while poor towns faced much higher tax burdens:

(Cummings) "The town that was the poster child was Stannard that I think had $3.58 tax rate at a time, when some of the ski towns had 28 cent tax rates and they were able to raise like $5,000 a child and other towns were raising $8-10,000."

(Keese) The Court directed the Legislature to level the playing field. In Act 60 and its successor Act 68 lawmakers established a statewide property tax and a complex set of equalization formulas in which property-rich towns contribute more to raise the quality of education for all Vermont childen. The formula taxes second homes and other non-residential property at a higher rate than primary dwellings.

Now, Cummings says, it’s time to evaluate. The Joint Fiscal Office has hired a California consultant to study the law’s impact and determine whether it is providing equal educational opportunities:

(Cummings) "The question is, have we found the fix that works. I mean are towns being unduly taxed right now?"

For resort towns near Mount Snow, that’s a no-brainer. Laura Sibelia is the director of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of the Dover School Board.

(Sibelia) "In the last ten years we have net sent out from Dover and Wilmington, $150 million to the state education fund. And for a long time, I think there’s been a belief that that money’s coming from wealthy people, from out of state who are rich enough to have a second home."

(Keese)  But Sibelia says local businesses, which are taxed at the same rate as second homes, have suffered because the higher taxes make it hard to reinvest or expand.

(Sibelia) "When you’re not able to reinvest on your business, you start doing less business, maybe you don’t need quite as many employees. There’s less jobs. When there’s less jobs, who’s staying? You know, when people start leaving cause they have no jobs, they’re taking their kids."

(Keese) Dover and Wilmington are among five Vermont towns, all resort towns, identified in the recent census as having lost population.

Sibelia doesn’t claim that the funding law is the only cause of the downturn in the two Southern Vermont towns. But like many others in the region, she wants to see some meaningful research on what the impact has been on sending towns like hers, as opposed to so-called receiving towns.

The towns are planning to hire a consultant of their own to make sure their towns’ experience gets factored into the state’s evaluation.

Senator Cummings says the state will be happy to consider the towns’ findings.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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