School spending thresholds up in the air

MONTPELIER — Senate lawmakers have taken one more step toward repealing school spending thresholds, while House lawmakers have taken a step backwards.

For the past week, lawmakers on both sides of the General Assembly have explored parallel but differing approaches to dealing with spending thresholds and financial penalties associated with Act 46, the school district merger plan signed into law in May 2015.

With a unanimous vote Tuesday, Senate lawmakers gave their preliminary approval to a bill to repeal the thresholds, which under Act 46, are in effect for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 and were intended as a means to provide immediate tax relief.

Sen. David Zuckerman (courtesy photo)

Sen. David Zuckerman (courtesy photo)

“I think we have the opportunity to get the best of both worlds, where schools really scrutinized their budgets, and yet, we’re not going to penalize districts that don’t deserve to be penalized,” said Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, who drafted the repeal bill in October.

Meanwhile, a bill offered by the House Education Committee to retain the thresholds but raise them by 0.9 percent was recommitted to the committee, meaning it will take another affirmative vote among those committee members to return the bill to the floor.

“We’ve received some confusing information from the Agency (of Education) about how to make the calculations,” House Education Committee Chairman David Sharpe, D-Bristol, told his colleagues in the House Chamber.

Rep. David Sharpe

Rep. David Sharpe

That “confusing information” was in reference to updated calculations issued from the Agency of Education to school districts on Friday, which changes the individual spending thresholds, the targets school boards have been trying to hit as they prepare their budgets for town meeting in March.

Previous calculations did not take into account spending exclusions required by statute, such as construction costs or some types of special education.

While the change is only expected to have a significant impact on districts with large changes from year to year in construction and special education costs, Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane — a member of the House Education Committee — said the new numbers present a new challenge for local school board members such as herself.

Rep. Emily Long

Rep. Emily Long

“We’re talking about school districts who are making decisions right now,” Long said. “In the field, it’s not as simple as it is on paper.”

Fellow committee member Rep. Tim Jerman, D-Essex Junction, discussed local school officials in his district are reacting to the revised numbers.

“Officials in my school district really felt like goal posts were moved this weekend,” Jerman said.

The committee took testimony from Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association.

“This probably the most challenging dynamic I’ve ever been a part of or witness to in the many years I’ve been working with this body,” Mace said. “I think the way this conversation has evolved only strengthens our organization’s position to call for a repeal, because, quite simply put, local officials and communities are in a really untenable position.”

Members of the House Education Committee discussed several alternatives, such as sticking with the old numbers, using the new numbers or letting the school districts choose which threshold they would like.

One alternative they did not discuss was repeal, unlike a half-dozen of their House colleagues who held a press conference during the noon hour to call for repeal of the thresholds.

Members of the House held a news conference to call for a repeal of the spending thresholds in Act 46. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

Members of the House held a news conference to call for a repeal of the spending thresholds in Act 46. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

“We often ask our children that, if they don’t know what the impact of their actions will be, to use the cautionary principal and first, do no harm,” said Rep. Kesha, D-Burlington.

“What we know now is there is uncertainty between the Agency of Education and House Education about how these spending caps will impact school districts.”

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