MONTPELIER, Vermont – Members of the public urged lawmakers on Friday to make the state’s school funding system more equitable.
More than 30 people spoke at a public hearing hosted by the “Student Weighting Factors Report Implementation Task Force,” a joint legislative body tasked with proposing a more equitable way of distributing money to school districts across the state.
Currently in Vermont, school budgets are developed locally by school boards and approved by voters. Funding, however, comes from the public education fund, which is funded in part by property taxes.
These local tax rates are determined by the expenditure per equalized pupil. A higher equalized number per student means lower tax rates for a district.
To calculate expenditure per student, 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 to be “obsolete,” with weights having “weak ties, if any, with evidence describing differences in the costs of educating children. students with disparate needs or operating schools in different contexts ”.
The task force held a similar hearing on September 8, in which all 40 speakers supported an overhaul of current student weights, echoing the report’s argument that they fail to fairly distribute resources.
Almost everyone who spoke on Friday also expressed support for the study.
Cathy Solsaa, a member of the City of Rutland Board of Trustees, said district schools have struggled “for decades” to deliver needed programs and meet student needs without adequate funding.
“The number of economically disadvantaged and often traumatized students represents a significant portion of our enrollments,” she said. “The real cost of meeting the needs of our students exceeds the current weighting system. “
Rutland City Public Schools is part of the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, which represents more than 20 underweight school districts in the state.
Solsaa said the updated student weights would allow the district to better serve students and taxpayers.
“With this new system, we would be able to provide our students with the support they need, regardless of their economic status or place of birth, to realize their potential and become responsible and engaged citizens,” he said. she declared. “We would no longer worry about spending an increased budget on already heavily taxed landowners or taking money out of the (education) fund.
Solsaa added that a recent proposal by the task force to remove weights for English Language Learning (ELL) students from the formula in favor of their funding through grants was “disheartening.”
Under the proposal, funding would be sent directly to school districts with English-speaking students in the form of grants or “categorical aid.”
The proposal would provide a base grant of $ 25,000 to districts with at least one student, with $ 5,000 per additional student. In total, the program is expected to cost $ 10.7 million.
“(The study) specifically stated in the report that the formula should be viewed as a whole. … Take a weight off and it affects all other factors. To take ELL students out of the equation is to change the outcome, ”she said. “It’s fair to say that categorical aid will continue to support the framework of racism, classism and systemic inequity on many levels.”
John Stroupe, chairman of the North West Addison School District Board, was the only one to criticize the implementation of the study’s recommendations as is, saying “it would cause enormous damage to my district. school ”.
“We estimate that if the weighting study were implemented as written, we would see a 20% tax increase on a level funded budget. We would lose over a million dollars in income and with a loss of about 59 students. “
Stroupe said his district could not just “tighten the belt” to make up for these losses, saying “we are already bare in our education.”
He added that the ANWSD is currently considering a potential merger with a neighboring school district in an effort to keep programs for students and keep taxes low.
“If you implement the weighting study, as is, I think it will pour gasoline on an already raging fire,” he said, urging the task force to keep moving. study the potential unintended consequences for small districts like his.
Scott Fay, school nutrition program manager at Essex Westford School District and president of the School Nutrition Association of Vermont, urged the task force to recommend that the legislature require universal school meals “to level the playing field. game for students ”, regardless of where they land. on the new weighting formulas.
He also asked the group to “recommend the statewide use of the household income form to collect the information needed for weighting, regardless of how the weights are calculated”, which would simplify the process by reducing paperwork.
Fay explained that meal participation increased 67% during the pandemic thanks to federal waivers that guaranteed meals for all students.
As a result, he said, schools were able to eliminate the stigma associated with school meals and focus on providing more nutritious meal programs.
“The bottom line: With a level playing field, more students get the nutrition they need, so they are fed, focused and ready to learn,” he said.
Fay’s request was echoed by several speakers, including Cassandra Fraser, director of marketing at Abbey Group, a food service management company that powers a number of schools across the state.
“It is our responsibility to create the conditions necessary for learning and to ensure that our children are not distracted by gurgling stomachs, and this is paramount in doing so,” she said. .
Tori Cleiland, president of the Winooski School District School Board, said the task force was “going rogue” with the lives of Vermont children by bringing forward its own proposals, such as funding ELL with emphatic help.
While task force members previously said updated models including proposed changes to the ELL would be released earlier this month, those models have yet to materialize.
“Proposals without doing the modeling initially lack integrity, foresight and fairness,” she said.
She noted that Friday’s testimony was broadly in favor of implementing the study’s recommendations.
“It seems you are essentially questioning the intentions of the communities and education experts we hire to run the schools to use fiscal capacity to meet the needs of our families and students,” she said. declared. “The actions and words of this working group demonstrate that the working group feels that you know better than communities, families, education professionals.
jim.sabataso @ rutlandherald.com