MONTPELIER — Senate lawmakers are taking their own stab at revamping school district spending thresholds, setting up debate Friday on the House floor.
With a voice vote, the Senate approved a proposal that would exempt school districts from spending thresholds if they are spending below the statewide per-pupil average for fiscal year 2017, and would repeal the thresholds altogether for 2018.
The Senate proposal comes in response to action taken by House lawmakers Wednesday that would increase every district’s threshold by 0.9 percent and lower the penalty for exceeding the threshold from 1 dollar for every dollar over the threshold to 25 cents for every dollar over.
The Senate proposal keeps the House plan to raise all thresholds by 0.9 percent, but raises the penalty to 40 cents for every dollar over the threshold, to make up for the districts who would be exempt from the thresholds because they are spending less than the statewide per-pupil average.
The House proposal would bring in $1.8 million in penalty revenue; the Senate proposal would bring in $1.9 million.
Under the Senate proposal, 67 school districts would exceed the thresholds, compared with 106 districts under the House proposal. Both the House and Senate proposals would raise the residential tax rate by 2 cents.
During a full caucus of the Senate prior to the vote, some lawmakers continued to express their support for the outright repeal of the spending thresholds.
“It seems to me that, when both bodies make a mistake in a good-faith effort, as my neighbor says, when you find yourself in hole, quit digging,” said Sen Mark MacDonald, D-Orange.
Sen. David Zuckerman, who introduced the original bill to repeal the thresholds — a bill that has been amended twice by House and Senate lawmakers during the past two days — said the thresholds are unnecessary.
“If our goal was to make districts look closely at their budgets, we have done that,” Zuckerman said. “I feel as though, as a body, and as representatives, if we got the result of them (school board members) doing the hard work … are we still going to penalize you?”
Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said she has been told there are not enough votes in the House to support repeal of the thresholds.
“We can stick with repeal, but if the other body is telling the truth and they don’t have the votes to do so, we’ll be stuck with the existing law,” Cummings said.
If lawmakers are unable to reach a compromise, than under existing law, 127 school districts would be over their thresholds, bringing in $9.5 million in penalty revenue.
Lawmakers involved in the discussions point to today as being the last day to make changes, because Sunday is the last day school districts can warn budgets that will be voted on by ballot on Town Meeting Day in March.
In truth, school board members who have to warn their budgets by Sunday approved their proposed budgets weeks ago. However, changes made today could impact the nearly 120 school districts where voters approve their budgets by floor vote.
Still, Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said the overall process has cast the legislature in a less than flattering light.
“The politics of this are terrible,” Ashe said. “The legislature looks terrible and dysfunctional.”
House Education Committee Chairman David Sharpe, D-Bristol, expressed cautious support for the Senate proposal.
“They supported keeping our thresholds in place for 2017, and that was the most important part of our work in the House,” Sharpe said. “They modified them in a way that is different from what we did, and I’m not sure what all the details are, but I suspect I will support them and move forward to work on some better cost containment for 2018.”
House lawmakers will take up the Senate’s proposal on the floor Friday morning.