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Vt. Senate blocks plan to delay school budget votes

Observer courtesy photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger Gov. Phil Schott after delivering his first inaugural address.
Observer courtesy photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
Gov. Phil Schott after delivering his first inaugural address.

By Tiffany Danitz Pache

For Vermont Digger

The Senate Committee on Education sent a strong message Tuesday against the governor’s education overhaul plan passing this year.

Gov. Phil Scott asked lawmakers to postpone the date for school budget votes to May 23. Towns typically vote on school budgets Town Meeting Day, the first Tuesday in March.

The Senate panel refused to consider the option of delaying and voted not to postpone school budgets as the governor had hoped.

Sen. Philip Baruth, (D/P-Chittenden) and the chair of Senate Education, said he took the straw poll to see if his committee, after listening to constituents and limited testimony from the administration, believed it was feasible or desirable to shift school budget votes from March 7 to May 23, as Gov. Phil Scott called for in his budget address last week.

The vote was unanimous, 6 to 0, with the two Republican members, Sen. Joe Benning, of Caledonia, and Sen. Kevin Mullin, of Rutland, voting no, but “with regret.”

Moving the vote on school budgets was key to Scott’s plan because it depends on communities level-funding their school budgets for next year. Many communities have been working on their budgets and were prepared to send them to the printers soon for March voting.

Rebecca Kelley, spokesperson for Scott, criticized the committee’s action. She said the Senate panel isn’t serious about stopping increases in property taxes.

“The Senate Education Committee’s straw poll results — taken after less than three minutes of testimony from the commissioner of finance — shows some committees are not even willing to take the time to consider these bold and decisive steps to halt unsustainable increases in property taxes,” she said.

Baruth had planned on nearly an hour of testimony from administration officials, but a member of the committee had to leave early, so he sped things up to hold the vote.

A week ago, Scott proposed a balanced budget by mandating school districts level-fund their school budgets. He also hopes to achieve savings by requiring communities to renegotiate teacher contracts so teachers pay 20 percent of their health care premiums.

Critics point out that fiscal year 2017 school budgets were artificially low because school boards spent down their reserves to avoid tax penalties under spending caps that would be revoked in fiscal 2018. Also, any savings from health care would not be available to use in this year’s budget.

Confusion ensued as school boards looked for direction on what to do since they are required to warn their school budgets 30 to 40 days before town meeting (a few school districts vote on their budgets in February, so they would already have been warned). The clock began ticking last Thursday, and this Sunday will be the last day. Secretary of State Jim Condos advised all school districts to move forward and warn their budgets until and unless the Legislature moved to do something.

Baruth was hoping to provide more clarity for school districts by holding the straw vote on the election part of S.46, a Senate bill that embodies the governor’s budget proposal. Baruth said he would take up the vote date change separately because it was time-sensitive. He pledged to go back and spend time working through the rest of the governor’s proposal with an eye toward implementing some provisions next year.

Baruth said he was “treating the election piece as a separate issue today and straw polling it that way to at least give guidance to communities that are wondering (if) we will or won’t be moving forward on the election piece.”

Act 46 implications

Sen. Becca Balint, (D-Windham,) vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the governor’s proposal needs to be considered in the bigger picture of Act 46, the school district merger law. “We are midstream on Act 46,” she said. “The savings are projected several years out. How does that work with these parts that are already in movement?”

Balint said many of the people she heard from over the weekend are part of Act 46 study committees and on school boards and they say the governor’s proposal is a wrench that has been thrown in the process.

There will be 10 more district unification votes on Town Meeting Day, according to Baruth.

Baruth and Balint said that in meetings around the state they are hearing that the mergers have resulted in immediate savings and “visible” educational opportunities for children.

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