MONTPELIER — Lawmakers were told Wednesday the state needs to do something to fix how it funds education.

Forty people spoke during a public hearing hosted by a joint legislative task force charged with proposing a more equitable way to distribute money to school districts across the state.

Since convening earlier this summer, the eight-member group, dubbed the “Task Force on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report,” has taken a deep dive into the state’s complex education funding system, hearing from policy experts, child advocates and school administrators.

Currently in Vermont, school budgets are developed at the local level by school boards and approved by voters. Funding, however, comes from the state education fund, which is funded in part by property taxes.

Those local tax rates are determined by spending per equalized pupil. A higher equalized per-pupil count means lower tax rates for a district.

To calculate per-pupil spending, the state applies a weighted formula that reflects the resources a district needs to educate students based on certain characteristics, including students living in rural areas, students from low-income backgrounds, students with different learning needs and students for whom English is not their primary language.

Yet a 2019 report commissioned by the Legislature found the existing formula — which was implemented more than 20 years ago — to be “outdated,” with weights having “weak ties, if any, with evidence describing differences in the costs for educating students with disparate needs or operating schools in different contexts.”

According to the report, a majority of Vermont’s school districts are under-weighted. One simulation projected that around two-thirds of cities and towns would see a reduction in tax rates under a revised formula. Based on fiscal year 2018 data, for example, Rutland City would see a 30-cent reduction to its tax rate — a 20% decrease.

The task force is co-chaired by Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, and Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, to serve as co-chairs. Additional task force members include: Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury; Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall; Rep. Kathleen James, D-Manchester; Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin; Sen. Cheryl Hooker, D/P-Rutland; and Sen. Andrew Perchlik, D/P-Washington.

On Wednesday, it was the public’s turn to weigh in. Speakers included teachers, parents, school administrators, school board members, a high school student, and two Vermont mayors.

All 40 speakers supported an overhaul of current pupil weights, echoing the report’s argument that they fail to equitably distribute resources.

Several school board members who spoke Wednesday are also members of the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, which represents 22 under-weighted school districts advocating for reform.

Many of the speakers urged the task force not to make categorical aid part of its solution. Categorical aid is federal or state funds granted to school districts for specific purposes such as transportation or special education programs.

Douglas Korb, a parent and member of the Marlboro School Board, said solving the problem using categorical aid is a “grave error in the making.”

“Vermont is fundraising just fine. The problem is about distributing the funds we have raised and making that distribution equitable to ensure the cost of educating children is shared and the tax rate is as close to even as possible throughout Vermont,” he said.

Korb said categorical aid is not impartial, saying it “defines and classifies people.”

He added that such funding is also subject to the whims of lawmakers, who could potentially modify how certain types of aid are defined from one legislative session to the next.

He said that achieving equity requires relying on hard numbers.

“Numbers are impartial. Formulas are dispassionate. The number does its job and a formula ensures all distributions go where intended,” he said.

Ted Plemenos, finance director for Rutland City Public Schools, urged the task force to act based on the findings of the report, arguing that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

“The analysis and recommendations of the 2019 UVM study provide a solution that is both reasonable in concept and grounded in solid data analytics,” he said, acknowledging that the recommendations found in the report are not the only approach.

“The state could continue to deliberate and hope for a more perfect solution. Of course, Vermont could also be waiting for another 20 years without making progress,” he said. “Deferring substantive action would have its own set of long-term costs and issues for our students, families and communities.”

RCPS Assistant Superintendent Robert Bliss also spoke, using Northwest Primary School as an example of how what he called “an arbitrary and antiquated weighting system” is not meeting student needs.

According to the Agency of Education data cited by Bliss, the percentage of Northwest students whose families live in poverty has increased from about 50% in 2000 to 81% in the current fiscal year, making it the third-poorest school in the state.

“In a fiscal year when we cut our budget by $800,000 and maintained per-pupil spending below the state average, we still incurred a significant homestead tax rate increase,” he said

Reier Erickson, a parent with two children at St. Albans City School, described the situation at that school, which he claimed was one of the poorest in the state.

According to Erickson, 36% of students come from low-income households, more than 600 students are on individualized education plans and current per-student revenue is lower than per-student expenditures.

“The current formula isn’t just unfair, but it penalizes many districts who are trying to do the most for those students who need specialized education,” he said. “It’s a simple issue of distribution; the money’s there, it just needs to be distributed equitably.”

Rebekah Silver, an after-school program teacher working in a subsidized housing community in Winooski, said the current system is failing low-income and new-American students.

She expressed her frustration that no action has been taken on the report since it was delivered to the Legislature in 2019.

“While you sit here seeking alternative solutions, our students are hurting and I see it every day,” she said.

Silver pointed to disparities in student opportunities that exist between school districts. She said, for example, nearby South Burlington High School currently offers 14 advanced placement classes while Winooski High School offers only one, and SBHS offers a wide variety of fall sports but WHS only offers soccer.

“The students I’ve worked with are resilient, smart, athletic, creative, and it frustrates me that they do not have access to the same resources and opportunities — both in school and after — as students in wealthier districts,” she said, calling grants and federal relief funds “Band-Aid” solutions.

“The problem is not the amount of money in the system, it is how you distribute it. Stop looking for alternatives and read the data,” she said.

jim.sabataso

@rutlandherald.com

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