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Stack: H.850 passes

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Unfortunately, it leaves much uncertainty and looks like a real “Show Trial Killer”.

Image courtesy US Library of Congress

by Michael Stack

With the passing of H.850, Governor Scott couldn’t slam the lid on the Act 127 garbage can fast enough. 

Sub headline – Act 127 Redux, while an extended state wide show trial was averted, the Senate Finance committee couldn’t avoid a little political finger pointing as they ushered their mess out the door.

The March 2024 and 2025 Education funding drama continues to unfold in Montpelier as the Legislature attempts to transition from act one, the “Beggar they neighbor” fumble, to act 2 the “divide and conquer” distraction.  To quote motivational speaker Matt Foley of SNL fame, “Bill Shakespeare” couldn’t make this stuff up.

The transition between acts has been as swift as politically feasible.  The Legislature held a handful of strategic listening sessions to demonstrate concern, however took no ownership for the financial disaster unleashed upon Vermont taxpayers. In the end, the chosen few were still chosen and certain towns came out “more equal than others”.  Winooski’s budget which initially came in at up 46% (#4 on the Act 127 “Naughty” List, shared during the 2/20/24 Vermont Senate Committee on Finance) looks to remain astronomically high under H.850 with estimates of spending still coming in at +$30k per student.  A skeptic might ask, how much of that is direct education spending and how much is indirect capital spending?

Unfortunately, the strikes are starting to add up for the State’s $2B education funding system. Fifteen years of school building neglect, Teacher pension funding neglect and now the ultimate TAXPAYER NEGLECT…

Comments made by Carl Houghton (Pensioner and longtime resident of Essex Junction) at the February 20th Essex – Westford School District meeting. “Many in the community are on fixed incomes and do not have unlimited money”.  “You can’t reach your hand deeper into an empty pocket and expect to find something that isn’t there”.

Many across the state are facing a similar conundrum. In our town, the Rockingham annual report lists 25 family homes that are at risk of being lost to tax sales.  All of this with a big picture background as outlined by the JFO (Joint Fiscal Office) in a 2/17/2023 report, W~Joint Fiscal Office~2023 Report on Vermont’s Education Financing~2-17-2023.pdf .  State-wide student count declining, relative academic results declining yet spending up at a rate well above inflation over the past decade. 

When confronted by a local representative regarding my public criticism of Act 127, I was asked “what would you do”?  I said simply, “Stop spending so much money”. The ESSER millions experiment showed no sign of changing the negative trends in academic outcomes. Our board has been told last spring’s test scores have been embargoed, that can’t be good news. Throwing money at the problem is never the answer.

With no checks and balances in place in Montpelier these and more poorly thought-out legislative changes are coming.  I digress. Next year’s home heating tax kerfuffle will result in the consolidation of many historied small “mom and pop” oil distribution companies. The financial and potentially physical pain to result for our most vulnerable neighbors could make the Act 127 debacle look like child’s play.

Full disclosure as a relative newbie I have been floored by the complexity and resulting lack of understanding of the Vermont Education funding system. This is true up and down the organizations that are tasked with implementing this beast. The complexity combined with misinformed explanations make it almost impossible for the average taxpayer to understand how things work and importantly how their disposable income is going to be impacted by these changes.

Unfortunately, I continue to hear people who have been doing this for over a decade try to blame the high taxes on irrelevant metrics like the CLA (Common Level of Appraisal). The CLA is strictly background noise in the state’s process of ensuring that everyone is operating on the same playing field.   Some attempt to use the confusion around CLA with a “divide and conquer” twist, with comments like “The CLA in Stowe is only 56%, can you believe the gall of those people?” Spoiler alert, Stowe sends roughly $50 million plus into the education pot every year.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear, the dollars we pay as part of the education related portion of our property taxes are driven by one thing, and that is the cumulative budgets passed across the state, period! Again, back to the Act 127 “Naughty” List, if the voters of Rockingham would like to understand why their taxes are going to go up at a low-double digit rate when many of their school districts passed fiscally reasonable mid-single digit increases, look no further than, yes you guessed it the “Naughty” List.  

The state slices and redistributes the tax bill for the $2B salami, an on-going political football. Unfortunately, many times it is cloaked in the name of Equity and really just adds layers of obfuscation through additional metrics including student head count methodology changes.

As I have stated in past commentary, I believe the origins of Act 60 were lofty, however as is so often the case, such ideals do not age well passing through the political sausage grinder.  If Act 127 was the Legislature’s attempt at a more equitable resource distribution, why did they implement Act 173 at the same time?  Act 173 has been labeled in our Supervisory Union as the “defunding special Ed Act”.  Don’t students that qualify for an IEP (Individual Education Plan) cost more to educate?  Are they not as important or equal to those students for which English is a second language.

Back to the “Naughty” List.  In what alternate universe would a school budget committee think a 51% yr./yr. increase (Windham), or 42% yr./yr. increase (Craftsbury) would be justifiable?  Did these districts really believe someone wasn’t going to have to pay for their largess?  Averaging the 122 districts in the state, spending was projected up 14% year over year. Now that Act 127, 5% air cover has been ripped off, we will see how these budgets are walked back.   Anyone want to start a pool on how many of the plus 10% club will dial it back now that it’s clear it’s their money they will be spending?  Obviously, my rhetorical question begs a sequel. Stay tuned.

The post Stack: H.850 passes first appeared on Vermont Daily Chronicle.

The post Stack: H.850 passes appeared first on Vermont Daily Chronicle.

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