Gov. Shumlin Signs Historic Education Reform Bill to Boost Quality & Address Rising Property Taxes

BOLTON, VT – June 2, 2015 – (RealEstateRama) — Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law today an historic education reform bill to help ensure educational quality for all Vermont students while bending the cost curve on education spending to address Vermonters’ calls for property tax relief. The Governor signed the bill, H.361, at the Smilie Memorial Elementary School in Bolton, which serves as an example of the type of reform the legislation is designed to facilitate.

“This bill is a game changer for Vermont,” Gov. Shumlin said. “We could have done nothing and watched as world-class education system was eroded by continued declining student enrollment, oversized, outdated infrastructure, and skyrocketing property taxes. Instead, we came together as Vermonters to find an innovative solution. This bill will allow local communities to right-size their infrastructure, enabling them to focus on what is most important – providing a high-quality, 21st century education for their students at a price Vermonters can all afford.”

With student enrollments down 20 percent since 1998, an average of a 4.7 to 1 staff-to-student ratio in Vermont schools, and Vermonters sending a clear message of frustration about school spending and rising property taxes, the Governor in his Budget Address in January called for legislation focused on the goals of improving school quality and controlling school spending and property taxes. The legislature, under the leadership of House Speaker Shap Smith, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, House Education Committee Chair Dave Sharpe, Senate Education Committee Chair Ann Cummings, and many others, built on specific proposals outlined by the Governor to craft an education reform bill to meet those goals.

This bill encourages and supports local decisions to streamline education infrastructure. More organized, sustainable systems free up capacity to focus on quality, expand options for students, ensure equal access to educational opportunities across the state, and maximize operational efficiencies to bring down costs.

The final legislation focuses on preserving the high performance that is a hallmark of PreK-12 education in Vermont by:

·       Creating incentives for districts that are actively trying to right-size through a merger

·       Removing incentives that encourage schools so small that educational quality is compromised

·       Forming of partnerships between the state and local communities to collect and share data to inform decision making

·       Creating a process for the State Board of Education and Secretary of Education to take action in certain districts if by 2019 they are not providing high-quality educational opportunities, are making fiscally indefensible decisions, or have made no reasonable plans to change

·       Adding spending restraints to immediately control property tax growth before the longer-term structural changes have a chance to bring down overall state education spending. Under this provision, districts with high per pupil spending must grow at a much slower annual rate than districts with low per pupil spending.

The Governor signed the bill at the Smilie Memorial Elementary School in Bolton. The Bolton community is notable because it had contemplated closing its school due to rising taxes and declining enrollments. As part of a new merged system, however, Bolton and its partner towns have improved opportunities for children, stabilized the elementary school, and reduced costs for local taxpayers.

“Bolton is proof that by working together, local communities can achieve benefits for both taxpayers and students,” the Governor said.

As another example of the type of action the education reform bill is intended to spur, the Governor pointed to the communities of Bridgewater and Pomfret, which earlier this year took a proactive step to reduce spending and ensure equity and opportunity for their students by combining their K to 6th grade schools. The action approved by both towns on Town Meeting Day creates a new school, located at the campus of the present Pomfret School, and will save the Bridgewater and Pomfret voters 24% of their combined individual budgets. It will lower per pupil spending to $11,710 from $16,564 and $15,870, respectively while also expanding educational opportunities.

Already, several supervisory unions have indicated they intend to take advantage of the opportunities in the new law to redesign their systems to improve opportunities for their children. Together with the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont Superintendent’s Association, the Agency of Education will be meeting with Supervisory Unions that wish to move forward under the new law. As of late last week, 17 Supervisory unions had requested meetings.

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