Lawmakers heading in different directions on school spending thresholds

MONTPELIER — As House and Senate lawmakers continue to move in different directions in the hopes of enacting swift change regarding school district spending thresholds, revised threshold numbers create additional uncertainty.

Lawmakers on either side of the General Assembly are no closer to reaching consensus on what changes, if any, should be made regarding spending thresholds that are estimated to result in more than 120 school districts facing property tax penalties.

If anything, lawmakers on both sides are doubling down on their parallel, but differing, proposals.

Earlier this week, House Education Committee members passed a bill that would raise each district’s threshold by 0.9 percent. On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee approved a bill that would repeal the thresholds altogether.

The thresholds themselves are a product of a last-minute compromise between Senate and House members during the creation of Act 46, the school district merger law created during the last session.

The spending increase thresholds vary from district to district, from nearly zero percent to more than 5 percent, based on a district’s current per-pupil spending compared with the state average.

However, many school districts have found their thresholds being consumed by a projected 7.9-percent increase in health insurance costs.

Members of both the House and the Senate both agree they are under the gun are under the gun to do something quickly, as local school boards have until the end of the month to finalize budgets that will be voted on at town meeting in March.

What that something will be, however, remains up in the air.

Rep. Janet Ancel

Rep. Janet Ancel

On Thursday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee gave what chairwoman Janet Ancel described as a “recommendation without enthusiasm” by voting to support a spending threshold of 0.9 percent.

“My preference would be to repeal the thresholds,” Ancel said. “I will vote for this because this seems like the bill most likely to move. My vote on the floor might not be the same vote as in here.”

Meanwhile, Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Ann Cummings, D-Washington, offered testimony before the Senate Education Committee to explain her committee’s call to repeal the caps.

Sen. Ann Cummings

Sen. Ann Cummings

“The Senate has always said no (to thresholds),” Cummings said. “When the proposal for thresholds was brought to us, and it sounded good. If you were low spending, you would be OK. Look, we tried. It’s not working out the way we thought.”

According to estimates from the Joint Fiscal Office, 127 school districts will face tax penalties for exceeding their thresholds. According to the same report, raising the thresholds 0.9 percent will result in 106 school districts facing tax penalties.

To confuse matters further, some school districts will actually be subject to a different spending threshold than what they had previously been told.

This week, the Agency of Education revised the threshold numbers, based on new calculations that include a number of exemptions for districts when calculating their per-pupil spending, such as construction costs and some special education funding.

“In most cases, it’s not going to have much of an impact,” said Brad James, education finance manager for the Agency of Education. “The ones who will be impacted will be the ones who have a large swing from year to year in their offsets.”

In a handful of cases, however, the impact of the new calculation will be significant. East Montpelier is looking at a drop in its allowable per-pupil spending of $2,888. Middletown Springs is looking at a drop in its allowable per-pupil spending of $339.

For its part, the Agency of Education’s official position is that that the thresholds should either be repealed or delayed a year, to give districts time to react and plan.

Officials representing school districts and and superintendents are also calling for outright repeal.

“Our organization’s position is the General Assembly ought to repeal the thresholds and do so as quickly as possible because boards are under a tremendous amount of pressure to get their budgets completed,” said Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. “There’s a fair amount of frustration and anxiety, I would say, about what is happening in this building (the State House), and the sooner we can come to a resolution, the better.”

Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, concurred with Mace.

“After studying the effects of these thresholds over the summer and into the fall, we became increasingly concerned that they wouldn’t play out as predicted from school district to school district,” Francis said.

“Our hope is that this issue get resolved as soon as possible,” Francis continued. “Our association has called for a repeal. That’s what we hope for. If it’s that 0.9 percent, that at least acknowledges the increased cost of health care.”

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