House lawmakers vote to raise school spending thresholds

MONTPELIER — House lawmakers have taken a step to address school district spending thresholds, but Senate lawmakers are looking at repealing the thresholds altogether.

On Tuesday, by a unanimous vote, the House Education Committee approved a bill to raise every individual school district’s spending threshold by 0.9 percent for fiscal year 2017.

Rep. Tim Jerman

Rep. Tim Jerman

“We have heard quite a bit of testimony and have heard from a lot of people back home who want to protect the cost control that was put into effect last session while recognizing every district is unique,” said Rep. Tim Jerman, D-Essex Junction. “This is a good compromise.”

The spending thresholds — which are in effect for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 — are part of Act 46, a law passed during the last legislative session that outlines a five-year plan to create larger school districts by the year 2020.

The law’s goals include providing greater equity among students from one school to another, with the hope that larger school districts would result greater financial efficiency and savings for property taxpayers.

The thresholds — which vary from school district to school district, depending on a district’s per-pupil spending compared with the statewide average — were intended as a mechanism to give property taxpayers immediate relief. Exceeding the thresholds would result in a tax penalty.

However, according to estimates from the Joint Fiscal Office, taxpayers within 127 school districts would see tax penalties totaling $9.5 for exceeding their thresholds.

“There are some districts that are being unfairly impacted by these allowable growth thresholds,” said Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane.

Rep. Emily Long

Rep. Emily Long

The move to raise every district’s threshold by 0.9 percent would still leave 106 school districts over their respective thresholds, according to estimates from the Joint Fiscal Office.

While some House lawmakers are looking at raising thresholds — Republican members want to leave the caps intact, according to Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton — Senate lawmakers are reviewing a bill that would repeal the thresholds altogether.

“I think repeal would be a horrible message to send after all the work that was done on this last year,” said Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, who serves on the House Education Committee.

The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to take up a bill from Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, to repeal the thresholds on Wednesday.

Rep. Ann Cummings

Rep. Ann Cummings

“The Senate had said no to caps right along,” said Committee Chairwoman Ann Cummings, D-Washington, on the last-minute compromise in May that resulted in the spending thresholds.

“Literally, on the last day of the day session, the last day of the committee, the spending thresholds got brought out,” Cummings said. “The expectation was that they wouldn’t affect very many schools and the ones they did (affect) would be the outlier big-spenders. The feedback we’re getting says that may not be the way this is playing out.”

With the House and the Senate looking at different proposals, it is uncertain if lawmakers will change the thresholds in time for local school districts to react. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, municipalities have until Jan. 31 to warn their ballot items for town meeting in March.

“If it doesn’t (happen by Jan. 31), we are all putting in a lot of time and energy for nothing,” Cummings said.

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