As the Legislature settles in to a new biennium, lawmakers face another challenging session as it continues to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19.

The pandemic has presented unique challenges to how the state manages its education system, where it has upended traditional models of education, laid bare long-simmering issues of equity and access, and put added stress on an already difficult financial situation.

Combine that with perennial concerns over educational funding, aging school infrastructure and a spate of looming school district breakups in the aftermath of Act 46, and lawmakers will admit they have a difficult session ahead of them.

Going into the new session, members of the House and Senate Education Committees outlined the issues they expect to see before them in the weeks and months to come.

Rep. Kathryn Webb, D-Shelburne, who is chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said the first order of business will be separating critical, time-sensitive issues from those who can wait. She said not to expect any transformative legislation or new mandates this session.

“We have systems that are pretty well stressed, and I don’t think that they’re looking for bright, new initiatives coming out of the State House this year,” she said, adding that the committee’s “primary focus will be responding to the impacts of COVID-19 and the closure of our schools.”

Webb said the first month of the session will be devoted to listening — “hearing from the field,” as she put it — to help inform the committee of the work they need to focus on going forward.

“If you want to see what an equity looks like, close school buildings and — I think, we saw in the spring — the dividing lines were immediate,” Webb said, citing issues with broadband access, food insecurity and child welfare.

Also, she noted deficiencies in being able to meet the needs of students with different needs or abilities in a remote setting.

Rep. Larry Cupoli, R-Rutland, serves as co-chairman of the Education Committee. He stressed his desire to focus on must-pass legislation such as the budget and less pressing matters for next year.

“It’s going to be a trying session,” he said, explaining the difficulty of effectively governing on 150-person Zoom calls. “It would certainly be nice to get back to the State House in a manner where it’s safe, and we can really do the business of the state and do some good formidable legislation.”

Sen. Philip Baruth, who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the pandemic will top his committee’s agenda as well.

The Chittenden County Democrat predicted a “belt-tightening year,” citing deficits in the the General and Education Funds as reserves and federal relief monies dry up.

In addition to hearing from key stakeholders in K-12 education about how the hybrid model of education has been working, he noted the outstanding issue of compensatory education for students on individual education plans whose IEPs were not effectively delivered because of remote learning.

“It’s going to be a process to figure out what sorts of compensatory education need to be provided, and there will be an expense to that,” he said.

Shifting their focus away from COVID, lawmakers still have a lot on their plate.

Webb said she anticipates child care and pre-K will be getting a lot of attention, but doesn’t expect to see any major changes.

“Universal pre-K is something that I know that we really want to improve, but this may not be the year for that,” she said.

On the topic of racial equity, both House and Senate committees expect to receive reports from the newly formed Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Working Group.

“Given what’s happened nationally and the focus on racial and social justice and racial/social equity, I think the timing will be good for us to be hearing from them as to how we might move forward,” Webb said.

Turning to the struggling state college system, Webb said her committee will be reviewing the legislative select committee report completed late last year.

While she acknowledged the system’s financial struggles are nothing new and more funding is needed, she stressed the need to be “good stewards of public funds.”

Baruth, who is a member of the select committee, said it will take the significant amount of short term transitional funding to get the system on a more sustainable path.

The report called for an allocation of $70 million in the coming year, roughly $40 million more than the normal allocation. Baruth said that even with some of that cost covered by federal funds for COVID-related expenses, it will still be a “hefty price tag to be paid.”

To that end, Baruth called for a new source of funding.

“I’ve been arguing for years now that the tax-and-regulate legislation which will create commercial marijuana in Vermont — I think that the bulk of the proceeds from that excise tax should be plugged into the state colleges and should fund them going forward,” he said.

Also, Webb and Baruth expressed their desire to resume discussions about restructuring the State Board of Education. In recent years, there has been a tug of war between the board and the secretary of education’s office about who drives and enforces policy. The Senate passed a bill last session that would reorganize the statutory responsibilities between the two bodies, but it died in the House.

Vermont’s aging school buildings, which Baruth called a “perennial issue,” are also on the minds of lawmakers.

He said the application of $16.5 million in federal coronavirus relief funds last year for HVAC repairs and upgrades was a start, but there remains “hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance that needs to be addressed.”

He recommended an “accurate accounting” of school infrastructure needs so the state can figure out how to best help districts.

Baruth acknowledged failed bond initiatives in Rutland and Chittenden County school districts that attempted to address infrastructure needs, and said the state needs to move away from its longstanding moratorium on construction aid to develop a targeted strategy supports districts most in need.

“It’s a catch-22,” he said, comparing the issue to health care, where failure to provide quality care upfront can result in higher emergency costs on the back end. “We can defer for 10 years, 20 years, but … at a certain point, when you vote no, no, no, you’re going to get what you what you voted for, which is an underfunded and faulty infrastructure.”

Act 46, the school district merger law passed in 2015, will also be on lawmakers’ radar this session as several towns around the state weigh secession.

Last week, Newbury residents fended off a proposal to leave the Oxbow Unified Union School District.

On Tuesday, however, Westminster residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of breaking up the Windham Northeast Elementary Union School District and returning to a standalone school district. The towns of Grafton and Athens, both of which also opposed the merger, now must vote on the matter.

Several other towns around the state are considering similar efforts.

Baruth said as these breakups happen, it’s important for the state to not only ascertain whether the departing town can provide good instruction to students, but if that town’s exit could negatively impact the remaining towns.

Cupoli suggested a temporary moratorium on such breakups could be in the offing this session, stressing the importance of the law for keeping educational costs down.

While he doesn’t believe Act 46 is going to solve the state’s funding woes on its own, he argued that downsizing and consolidation has to be a part of it.

“I know that’s difficult for communities, but the fact remains that small schools are just chewing up a lot of taxpayer money,” he said.

Another potential source of relief for education costs is the weighting study contained within Act 173, which recommends changes to the education funding model to better support districts in low-income areas or those with higher special education needs. Both committee leaders reported they would further explore the study this session.

Cupoli underscored his concerns about funding.

“The (education) fund is approaching $2 billion, and we’re seeing fewer and fewer students,” he said. “Property tax payers … not only are they fed up, they just can’t afford to do it anymore.”

Webb is similarly troubled.

“Educational funding in this biennium is facing challenges really without precedent — and this is across the country. We have the enrollment numbers in some areas that are drastically different,” she said. “(We’re) likely to see some real challenges coming forward there.”

One particular bill likely to garner attention this session is a proposed statewide ban on the use of racial and ethnic groups as mascots in public schools.

Last fall, Rep. William Notte, D-Rutland, declared his intention to introduce the bill. Notte’s wife, Alison Notte, is chairwoman of the Rutland City Board of School Commissioners, which voted in October to cease use of the district’s Raider name and arrowhead image. The decision has sparked backlash in the Rutland community.

Notte wrote in a Wednesday email that he had 22 state representatives ready to sign the bill when he first contacted them, but noted those representatives have not had a chance to review the latest draft, which is currently undergoing revisions with the House legal department.

He stated he was not sure if the bill would move forward once sent to committee, acknowledging that the Legislature has a busy session ahead of itself.

“(A)s long as the bill has buy-in from Indigenous groups, it could be a fairly easy and quick bill to pass,” he wrote.

jim.sabataso @rutlandherald.com

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