House gives final approval to school district consolidation bill

MONTPELIER — A bill that proposes to merge school districts and potentially cap education spending is on its way to the Senate.

House lawmakers approved a bill Thursday that would create larger school districts — voluntarily or involuntarily — and cap future education spending if it increase more than it did when voters approved their school budgets in March.

The spending cap component of the bill — created through an amendment from Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, and approved by House lawmakers Wednesday — would trigger a 2-percent spending cap in 2017 and 2018 if the statewide average education spending increase in 2016 exceeds 2.95 percent, the average rate of growth for budgets approved by voters last month.

As they did Wednesday, lawmakers offered a host of amendments to the bill. Rep. Christopher Pearson, P-Burlington, made a motion to reconsider the Buxton amendment.

“Yesterday, we discussed what kind of cap we should have. Today, I want to discuss if we should have a cap,” Pearson said.

Rep. Ann Donahue, R-Northfield, said she supported repealing the spending cap provision because she did not believe its structure would curb education spending.

However, House lawmakers declined to take up the discussion, defeating Pearson’s motion by a vote of 114 to 22.

Rep Curtis McCormack, D-Burlington, made a motion to amend the bill to address the repayment of money to the state following the sale of a school.

Currently, when a school district sells a school for which they received construction aid from the state, the district must reimburse the state for 30 percent of the sale price.

The district merger bill calls for a suspension of that rule, allowing the school district to keep all of the money following the sale of a school. McCormack, whose amendment called for the preservation of the current law regarding repayment to the state, argued that such a provision could motivate districts to close and sell off their schools.

“I would suggest that this amendment does not unravel this bill, but rather, restores the integrity of this bill,” McCormack said. “This way, you will not have an incentive to close small schools.”

Rep, David Sharpe, D-Bristol, who chairs the House Education Committee, argued that exempting a school district from having to repay the state for construction aid will benefit the community where the school is located.

“If this small piece allows a school to become an economic driver … then we shouldn’t take away that piece,” Sharpe said.

Lawmakers defeated McCormack’s amendment.

The most radical amendment of the day came from Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, who called on lawmakers to scrap the entire bill and study the feasibility of her long-offered plan to overhaul education governance.

For the past seven years, Scheuermann has proposed a plan that would create 15 regional tax districts based around the state’s technical centers. Her plan would preserve local school boards, who would create individual school budgets and forward them to a central board, which would create a single budget to be voted on by residents within the district.

Students would have school choice for any school within the tax district, and parents within the district would share a common property tax rate.

“The elimination of local school districts and local school boards, the elimination of local community voice in providing educational services to the students they know best, is not, in my view, the direction we should go,” Scheuermann said.

Sharpe’s committee voted unanimously to not support the amendment.

“This eviscerates the bill that we supported yesterday,” Sharpe said. “It sets us back in our effort to create better education for students at a price Vermonters can afford.”

Sheuermann’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 83 to 37.

The Senate will have the next month to choose to take up the bill, longer than they had last year when a school district merger bill was approved by the House in mid-April.

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