The Future of Education: Winners, losers under Act 60 and 68

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(Host) In discussions about education financing, there is often talk about who comes out ahead.

Education officials say that children are the winners in the state’s funding formula.

But people have their own, often passionate, opinions about who wins and who loses under Acts 60 and 68.

This week, as VPR continues special coverage of “The Future of Education,” reporter Susan Keese looks at the situation in three southern Vermont towns.

(Keese) It’s late afternoon in the middle of a big winter vacation week. Ski traffic is pouring off Okemo Mountain onto Ludlow’s main street.

(Supermarket sounds)

(Keese) Outside a busy supermarket some locals are trying to tap a little of the wealth flowing thru town.

(Seller) “Raffle tickets for two dollars for local scholarships.”
(Passerby) “I think we’ll pass, sorry.”

(Keese) One man says he pays too much in education taxes to be buying raffle tickets in Ludlow.

Among the ticket sellers is Frank Perotti, the local school superintendent. He says taxes are high in this town where most of the real estate is now in pricey vacation properties. But under the state’s education funding formula, that non residential tax wealth is supporting education in other, technically poorer towns.

Perotti says Ludlow raises almost $20 million a year for the state education fund. It gets back $4.5 million to educate its children.

(Perotti) “There’s tremendous resentment about the amount of money that goes out. And here we’re struggling to revamp a science lab that hasn’t been remodeled since it was built in the 1930s. But it’s just almost an impossible issue to bring forward because of the tax burden at this point.”

(Keese) Diana Chimbolo chairs Ludlow’s Black River Middle and High School board. She says it took three votes both last year and the year before to pass a bare-bones school budget.

She says local residents are taxed out, even those who qualify for income sensitivity under Act 68. Forty percent of Ludlow’s kids qualify for free and reduced lunches.

But even without fixing the school’s patched together heating system and inadequate computer labs Chimbolo says taxes keep going up. She says local residents are penalized by shrinking student enrollment among other factors.

She worries that Ludlow will lose its schools if things don’t improve.

(Chimbolo) “Funding formulas are always challenged. And there’s always someone that cries it’s not fair. But I really feel the way this one is set up is meant to close small schools.”

(Keese) Meanwhile, things are looking up in Springfield’s crumbling industrial shell. Steve Hier is the longtime business manager for the Springfield school district.

(Hier) “Before Act 60 Springfield was really in a difficult situation. We had almost completely stopped doing almost any kind of physical plant projects, no maintenance on our buildings. Our class sizes were increasing. The measure of wealth in terms of education is how much property value do you have in relationship to the number of kids. And Springfield has for Vermont a large number of children and we don’t have a lot of tax base to support those students. So we were a poor town in that respect. And Act 60 equalized things for us.”

(Keese) Hier says the basis of Act 60 is that towns that spend the same amount per student would have equal rates.

But in Bennington, another town that benefits financially, the funding formula is controversial. Last fall a majority of the town’s select board signed on to Revolt and Repeal,’ a grassroots effort to repeal Act 60.

(Stuart Hurd) “They wanted to sign on to send the message that the current system has gotten too convoluted and too complex.”

(Keese) Stuart Hurd is the Bennington Town Manager. He says the law is also hard on municipalities. Last year Bennington’s town tax rate dropped 9 cents. The legislature reduced the school tax rate too. But because property values are rising in Bennington, many local people’s taxes went up anyway.

(Hurd) “And I think if the state wants to be in the property tax business and they want to pay for education, they ought to collect the money, and they ought to disperse it and take that responsibility off the town. Because I can tell you my staff gets hammered at tax time, people are very angry about the amount they’re paying in taxes.”

(Keese) But Bennington School Superintendent Wesley Knapp says he thinks most people in town are happy with Act 68. The district has a new Middle school. Next year it plans to close one of its elementary schools, and redistribute students at substantial savings.

(Knapp) “People tell me they want their local school, they want that school building forever. I say to them, if fuel cost ten dollars a gallon today would you still want to operate with four schools when you could operate with three?'”

(Keese) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

Note: You can join the studio audience tonight at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Montpelier for the second part of VPR’s symposium on the Future of Education. The event starts at 5:30pm with a live broadcast at 7:00.

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