Legislature finalizes education cost bills

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(Host) The House and Senate Education committees are putting the final touches on several bills that are designed to control school costs in the future.

Legislative leaders are making it clear that the proposals will not reduce current property tax burdens, but they will slow down the growth of tax rate increases in the future.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The two committees have spent most of the session reviewing ways to control education costs. Although they’re drafting separate bills, there are some common elements in their approaches.

Both committees want to discourage towns from spending significantly above the statewide average.

Currently a penalty kicks in if spending is 25 percent above the state’s per student average – the Senate bill lowers this threshold to 15 percent over a three-year period.

Senate Education Chairman Don Collins thinks this provision will get the attention of local school boards:

(Collins) “I believe if we give it a chance like we gave the legislation Act 68 a chance it’s going to make a difference. School board people tell me when we’re getting close that we start saying how can we get creative and I know some places they’ve had to cut positions and maybe they didn’t want to cut, but I think it encourages a healthy and necessary dialogue.”

(Kinzel) A number of towns in Vermont also spend considerably above the statewide average for special education expenses. The committees want to know why and they’ve set up a process to have the Department of Education work with these schools on ways to reduce these costs.

Consolidation of school districts is another issue under study. House Education Chairwoman Janet Ancel says her panel is backing away from a state mandated plan in favor of a voluntary approach:

(Ancel)”We’ve done a lot of work on the issue. We also heard at the public hearing that people are not ready — certainly not ready — for a mandate, but I think are ready for a discussion of this.”

(Kinzel) When all is set done, Ancel is convinced that the legislation will help reduce educational spending, but she has a word of caution:

(Ancel)”It will make a difference. Will it make somebody’s tax bill go down? It doesn’t do that. We’ve been very clear and I think the governor’s also been clear that people’s tax bills are not going to be reduced. What we’re talking about is reducing the increase in the growth of spending.”

(Kinzel) House Speaker Gaye Symington told reporters on Friday afternoon that the only way lawmakers can significantly reduce property tax burdens is by stepping outside the framework that they’ve established with the governor:

(Symington) “Vermonters will not be satisfied. They will not be satisfied by the consequences the governor has put on the table and they won’t be satisfied by what we put on the table. We are both talking about reducing the pace at which school spending increases and it’s very much around the margins. I think that’s why you see so many members of the Legislature feeling there’s a more fundamental discussion that we need to be having.”

(Kinzel) The Senate could take up their special education bill as early as next week.

For VPR news, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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