Symington opposes a repeal of new school funding law

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(Host) House Speaker Gaye Symington says she opposes efforts to repeal a new state law to slow down the growth of school budgets.

Vermont’s teachers union and the state’s School Board Association argue the new law will undermine the quality of education in the state.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The new law, known as Act 82, affects only certain communities. First, the town must be spending above the statewide average, and second, its proposed budget increase must be larger than the rate of inflation plus 1%.

If a town falls into this category, then the amount of spending above the inflation and 1% threshold will be presented to voters in a supplemental budget on Town Meeting Day.

On Thursday, the Vermont School Boards Association will vote on a motion to repeal the new law. John Nelson is the executive director of the group. Nelson is concerned that voters will look at the supplemental budget request as unnecessary spending, when in fact he says it may be critical in maintaining the quality of education in the community:

(Nelson) "The way the law usurps the authority of local boards and local voters to propose budgets and vote on budgets that are really reflective of the needs of their schools and their communities in a way that’s understandable. The two vote process requires…ballots that read with certain language that is, I would say, prejudicial in the way that people will view it."

But House Speaker Gaye Symington says the new law is a reasonable effort to slow down the growth of budgets in high spending towns:

(Symington) "I’m not interested in repealing the law that we passed last year. We do need to contain the pace that school spending has increased and those decisions happen at the local level."

Symington says the two step budget process will require local school officials to justify their higher spending levels:

(Symington)"I think that by asking voters to look at that second vote you’re drawing attention to that level of spending and you are giving school boards a tougher job – I acknowledge that – in convincing voters that that spending is necessary."

School Boards executive director Nelson says that scrutiny is already taking place:

(Nelson) "With all due respect, if there’s anybody who thinks that school boards only think once about their budgets or that voters only think once about their budgets they are from somewhere else. This is kind of a patronizing approach to it."

The new law doesn’t go into effect until the winter of 2009. Speaker Symington says that gives lawmakers time in the upcoming session to consider a bill that clarifies how the supplemental budgets should be presented to voters.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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