Bill proposes changes to education spending | Local News

A new bill in the Vermont House of Representatives aiming to change the state’s educational spending formula could help schools better meet the needs of pre-K-12 students.

H.54, introduced last month by a tripartisan slate of legislators, proposes changes to the weighting factors used to calculate equalized pupils. Weighting factors reflect the resources a district needs to educate students based on certain characteristics, including students from low-income backgrounds, students with different learning needs, and students for whom English is not their primary language.

Equalized pupil counts determine education property tax rates for districts. A higher equalized pupil count means lower tax rates for a district.

According to the bill, “This benefit provides the district with greater taxing capacity that can be used to increase its education spending, resulting in more resources to benefit students and improve student outcomes.”

The bill calls for the implementation of recommendations made in the University of Vermont Pupil Weighting Factors Report — a study commissioned by the General Assembly and delivered in December 2019. The study found the existing weighting formula to be “outdated,” with weights having “weak ties, if any, with evidence describing differences in the costs for educating students with disparate needs or operating schools in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.”

At a virtual Monday news conference, legislators heard from school officials across the state about how the current weighting formula fails to meet the needs of students.

Alex Yin, a member of the Winooski School District School Board, described the challenges of meeting the needs of his district’s large new American population, as well as those families who are living in generational poverty. Meeting such needs requires an investment of extra resources, Yin said, which is difficult under the current educational funding formula.

“A funding formula that is inequitable causes school districts to be reactive to problems instead of being proactive and strategic,” he said.

According to Yin, under the study’s recommendations, Winooski’s equalized pupil count would rise from around 1,000 to 1,600.

“Imagine what more we could do if we did not have such constraints,” he said.

Winookski High School student Khellmar Daring used transportation funding to illustrate Yin’s point on how budget constraints impact students.

“On top of completing these duties as students, kids have to worry about how they’re also going to get home that same day,” Daring said. “I can say from personal experience because my dad was working early in the morning … because there was no dedicated busing for our students, that getting to school was not a fun part of the schooling experience,” he said.

Alison Notte, chairwoman of the Rutland City Board of School Commissioners stated that the data in the study supports what Rutland City Public Schools has been dealing with in meeting increased student needs in recent years.

“The current weighting formula incentivizes increased spending for children in large, wealthy districts with the least needs and decreased spending for students in poorer, rural districts with the most needs,” she said, noting that the current weighting is more than 20 years old.

Notte said RCPS serves a “large population of economically challenged students” — close to 95% of K-8 students — as well as students experiencing some form of trauma. According to Notte, 50-75% of incoming kindergartners have experienced trauma.

Meeting these needs require additional supports, including school counselors, nurses, mental health workers, access to food, access to technology, and differentiated learning opportunities.

“These programs support many of the differentiated student needs, but they cost more per pupil to run,” she said. “Under the current weighting formula, RCPS is being underfunded for providing these needed supports and, in turn, cannot grow to increase the needs. Yet meeting these needs are essential to our students and educating our children.”

Jennifer Botzojorns, superintendent of the Kingdom East Unified Union School District in Caledonia County, said the lack of adequate funding for her district has put students at a disadvantage.

In 2019, Botzojorns stated five of the district’s schools had attrition rates of 20%. She said teachers often come to the district to gain experience, but leave because their spouses can’t find work in the area, they want access to more amenities or they are seeking higher-paying positions.

“That has a significant impact on our ability to have deep, consistent academic teaching,” she said.

Botzojorns explained that a shortage of qualified teachers impacts academics. She said professional staff in the district currently have 32 emergency provisional licenses in subjects outside their areas of expertise.

“In some schools, one teacher teaches fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade math and science,” she said. “The teachers are doing six preparations in two content areas — they’re exhausted. We can’t pay for the smaller class sizes to support the grade-level learning.”

She noted that while more affluent districts can afford to have AP-level classes with fewer than 10 students, her district can’t offer students such opportunities, resulting in an “achievement gap.”

Botzojorns added that tight budgets lead to neglecting school facilities. She explained that three district schools lack adequate ventilation and two schools have mobile, temporary classrooms that have been in use for more than 20 years.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, one of H.54’s sponsors, stressed the need to act on the bill, noting that the coronavirus pandemic has made existing inequities worse.

If passed, the bill would implement all weighting factors for fiscal year 2022 school budgets with the exception of the poverty weight, which would be phased in during the next three years.

“The findings in the report are that we have been dramatically underfunding our poorest students, and so correcting that is going to be significant and noticeable,” she said, explaining that one-third of the poverty rate would be implemented in the first year and the remaining two-thirds would be implemented through the subsequent two years.

Sibilia acknowledged that correcting the weights would be felt by wealthy districts, which are overweighted under the current formula. She said the phased-in approach is a way to mitigate any increases in property taxes and “absorb some of the shock.”

According to Sibilia, the state Joint Fiscal Office has done some modeling on how much affluent districts might lose based on the new formula. Because the JFO’s calculations rolled in the full poverty weights into the first year, Sibilia cautioned that numbers are higher than what they would actually be.

She explained the bill would mitigate any tax increase more than 20% in an overweighted district via the Education Fund.

“If we were to mitigate all tax effects — as opposed to the 20% — and we rolled in all of the weights and the poverty weight in one year, that would be a shift within the system of $50 million,” she said. “If we were to roll in (the poverty weights) in one year … and mitigate 20% … it would be $5 million.”

Also, the bill calls for the creation of a committee to provide oversight and accountability to ensure the new weights are working properly.

“This is something that, certainly, we can get our arms around,” Sibilia said. “I think my colleagues and co-sponsors would agree that it’s really important that we try to reduce shocks in the system. But also we know we have to move, we have to act.”

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