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April 2024: Education Funding Update and School Budget Revote



Introductory Post


I support the revised CVSD school budget and look forward to voting for it on April 16. I appreciate the difficult decisions the board has made to cut $4 million as well as applying an additional $1 million as revenue from the fund balance, for a total decrease of $5 million compared to the budget that was voted down on Town Meeting Day.


I am deeply committed to public education. It is the most powerful institution we have to close opportunity gaps and create a more just and hopeful future. Public education and particularly what we do in the early years is prevention, including prevention for being involved in the criminal justice system or being unhoused or many of the costly challenges we are wrestling with in the legislature and in society today. I am also deeply concerned about projected property tax increases and the instability this budget season has created in schools and communities. We must transform our system in Vermont (which right now is really just a funding formula) into a right-sized, strong public education system that supports all students and uses our precious statewide resources sustainably and efficiently


Vermont’s education funding formula is unique and complex and derives from a landmark legal case decided long before I even lived in Vermont. Each school district’s education spending is determined at a local level but our resources are pooled in a STATEWIDE education fund, as a result of a 1997 Vermont Supreme Court decision (Brigham) that found our state constitution requires “substantially equal educational opportunity to all students” regardless of where they live. Taxes must be levied in order to raise the funds for all approved school budgets across the state. 


This means that property tax rates in Williston are not solely a product of decisions and actual spending in CVSD (the current proposed budget is a 5.8% increase). Our tax rates are a complex result of spending in CVSD, education spending across the state, property values and revenue from sales and meals/rooms taxes. This inherent tension between a statewide fund and local decisions may be reaching a breaking point but our system is over 200 years in the making, so coherent change will take time and will have to stay within the bounds of the Brigham decision. 


Based on recent discussions in the legislature, I expect additional non-property tax revenues to go to the Education fund to increase the yield number. This conversation is still evolving but additional revenues are likely to come from the expansion of our state sales tax to include cloud-based services purchased over the internet as well as some other sales tax adjustments. I also agree with Senator Chittenden on the need for an increased property tax rate on second homes sitting vacant in Vermont as well as a sugary sweetened beverage excise tax to pay for Universal School Meals (but even if they do pass this year, they would not generate revenue to improve the yield this year). 


I know that many voters want to “send Montpelier a message.” I am listening. Of course, I cannot speak for other state legislators and the Governor. I have worked hard to ensure that the House Education Committee (I serve as Vice Chair) has taken testimony from literally hundreds of witnesses, including school board members, teachers, principals, superintendents, Agency of Education officials, the Chamber of Commerce, national education research experts and education leaders in other states. I have met with many CVSD administrators and the entire school board. I co-hosted a community conversation with Rep. Arsenault last month and we look forward to another event in a few weeks. I understand that voters are frustrated and I am working everyday to push for systemic reform but it will require a majority in the legislature and the Governor to be equally committed.  


I have long been concerned that one of the consequences of our system of local control and voting on all school budgets locally (we are one of only 2 states that does this) is that the process is extremely high stakes. While voters may want to “send Montpelier a message,” I worry the ones who actually feel the "message" most acutely are the people working inside our schools who show up to school after a failed vote, go to extraordinary lengths to serve all kids and do it feeling like their community does not value their work. This cycle is hard on morale and culture in schools and is exacerbated in our hyper-connected world today. 


Over the next few days I will share a series of posts about the history and complexity of education funding in Vermont,  the compounding challenges this year leading to such a big increase in education spending and instability for our schools and the major themes emerging from extensive testimony in Montpelier about the options ahead as well as my goals and efforts to advance this work.  I will share all of my posts on Facebook and erinbradyforwilliston.com and be available to meet with anyone interested in talking further on Monday, April 15 (in the afternoon) at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library. I am always available by email (ebrady@leg.state.vt.us) and am happy to talk over the phone if it is more convenient.  


Post #2 

I support the revised CVSD school budget and look forward to voting for it on April 16. I appreciate the difficult decisions the board has made and know cuts in school spending have real impacts on kids, learning and opportunities. 


I am continuing a series of posts about education policy/finance and will share all of my posts on Facebook and erinbradyforwilliston.com. I will be available to meet with anyone interested in talking further on Monday, April 15 (2:30-4:30) at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library. I am always available by email (ebrady@leg.state.vt.us) and am happy to talk over the phone if it is more convenient. 


A short history of how we got here: Vermont’s education finance system is unique and complex. Until the 1990s, local school budgets were funded directly by local property taxes. This resulted in wealthier towns being able to offer greater educational programming at lower tax rates than poorer towns could. While at the federal level education is not considered a fundamental right, Vermont provides “that all Vermont children will be afforded educational opportunities that are substantially equal.” In 1997, in what is known as the Brigham decision, the Vermont Supreme Court determined that the way we were funding education was fundamentally unfair. In response the legislature passed Act 60 in 1997, creating the statewide Education Fund (which was updated by Act 68 in 2003). This led to our current system where decisions about district spending are made at the local level while money is collected and redistributed at the state level. This resulted in more money flowing to poorer areas of the state, but it also came along with a complicated formula and to some degree insulated taxpayers from the direct consequences of their local spending choices. 


A long history of unequal educational opportunities correlated to socioeconomic status, race and  geography was not unique to Vermont, although the creation of a statewide education fund as a response certainly was and still is. I did not live in Vermont yet when these dramatic education finance changes were enacted in Vermont but I was working for a U.S. Senator when No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001 as a purported “solution” to the achievement gap (the senator I worked for was one of the votes against NCLB, as were Vermont’s Senator Leahy and Senator Jeffords). How to fund and deliver high quality education to all students within a society where huge inequalities exist has been the focus of national, state and local reform efforts for decades. It is my life’s work as a teacher, a policymaker and as a parent.  


 In 2022, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed Act 127. The bill updated Vermont’s “pupil weights” — a key factor in our complex education funding formula that accounts for the different cost of educating different categories of students. (Research is clear that it costs more, for example, to educate students living in poverty and English Language Learners.) While well intentioned, I am increasingly concerned that this has added so much complexity to our system that it moves us away from voters feeling connected to their local budget. I am also concerned that the districts that will be most negatively impacted (including ours) are also some of the largest school districts in the state (and our districts are still very small compared to other states). All of our spending on education in Vermont is interconnected and the spending of larger districts, which are generally operating more at scale, has a larger impact on the statewide fund. There is active discussion about shifting to a finance system where the state provides districts with some sort of minimum funding (“adequacy”) per weighted student, with districts being able to fund services above and beyond that base level through local taxation. The mechanics of making such a finance shift are complicated and administrators will need time to prepare. It is clear from extensive testimony that finance changes alone may not address some of our underlying challenges and cost drivers including a lack of capacity at the Agency of Education to support the field, the sheer number of school buildings in our state that require staffing, the cumulative cost of 17 years without any state support for facilities work, an increase in the amount of public education dollars going to tuition at independent schools and the increased needs of students. 


One of the most pronounced lessons I’ve learned as a public school teacher of 18 years is the cumulative effect of inequitable opportunities and experiences on young people and their families. I know schools alone cannot fix everything, but I believe they are the most important institutions we have to close opportunity gaps and they are fundamental to our democracy. I am genuinely hopeful that we can come together to transform our system in Vermont (which right now is really just a funding formula) into a right-sized, strong public education system that supports all students and uses our precious statewide resources sustainably and efficiently. There are extraordinary conversations happening around our state and in our state capital and I genuinely sense hope about the path ahead. Our system is over 200 years in the making, so coherent change will take time and will have to stay within the bounds of the monumental Brigham decision. 


Post #3 

I support the revised CVSD school budget and look forward to voting for it on April 16. I  appreciate the difficult decisions the board has made and know cuts in school spending have real impacts on kids, learning and opportunities. 


Property tax increases are being driven by an estimated 15% increase in proposed education spending across the state (the CVSD budget is a 5.8% increase). Please remember that further cuts in CVSD alone will not dramatically lower property taxes due to our statewide Education Fund. Each school district’s education spending is determined at a local level but our resources are pooled in a STATEWIDE education fund, as a result of a 1997 Vermont Supreme Court decision (Brigham) that found our state constitution requires “substantially equal educational opportunity to all students.” Our tax rates are a complex result of spending in CVSD, education spending across the state, property values and revenue from sales and meals/rooms taxes. Under our current system of local control, “Montpelier” also cannot just force all districts to make cuts.  


This year, school leaders are facing a “perfect storm” of financial pressures, including the end of federal funds, dramatic increases in employee healthcare costs (16% increase), increased salaries for hard-working educators that were negotiated during an inflationary period where the profession was under tremendous strain (we also have a record number of teachers on provisional/emergency licenses), extraordinary facilities needs after decades of deferred maintenance ($33 million increase this year) while we have no statewide program for school construction. (The House Education Committee is working to create a new construction program that will be far more targeted to ensure we invest wisely and promote consolidation where it is long overdue.) In an analysis of current school budgets by our Agency of Education that was shared on February 17, I was particularly struck that mental and behavioral health spending is least $52.8 million this year. In 2022, there were 142 positions under this category across the state; in FY25 proposed budgets, there are 790 positions under this category. By chronically underfunding the state mental health system, schools are compelled to pick up the tab. Education is expensive in part because we ask so much of our schools.


In addition to the dramatic increases this year, there are underlying costs in our Education Fund that deeply concern me. We operate over 250 schools buildings in Vermont and that drives many of our staffing costs and facilities needs.  Vermont schools will always be small by most national standards given our rural nature, but we have schools with extremely small class sizes and multiple grades being combined, not because it is an educational choice but because it is a staffing necessity. We have high schools with graduating classes smaller than 20 and educationally, those students might be better served in schools with programmatic opportunities. To be clear, this is not the case in CVSD. Vermont has a culture of small, sometimes to our detriment and it will take extraordinary political will to make some of these hard decisions.  


In addition to many very small schools, we need to get away from operating parallel systems - public and private schools - using public education dollars.  We have a town tuitioning program for areas that do not operate schools and while the four historic academies operate as quasi-public schools, there has been a steady increase in the number of students using vouchers for school choice and an increase in the number of schools where those vouchers go. This scatters our public education dollars in more directions when we need to move towards greater efficiencies and often affords some students opportunities that not all can access. We should immediately stop sending our public education dollars out of state and out of the countryWhen wealthy families take our public education dollars out of Vermont or the U.S., they are still paying high costs in addition to our public dollars while our local schools and the Vermont Education Fund lose that money. I helped write legislation last year (H. 483) to end this and we passed it through the full House but the Senate refused to take it up.  


We need to resource our Agency of Education to be a steward of our statewide system.  Leadership matters and it is unconscionable we have not had a Secretary of Education for a over a year during such a difficult time. A lack of centralized support for our system has made it more disjointed, less effective and at times, more expensive. When schools cannot count on our agency for technical assistance, timely budget data or professional development on practices that improve learning (and could decrease our very high special education costs), they all do the work on their own which leads to higher costs.  


When we talk about taxes, we have to be specific. I agree that the current property tax trajectory is unsustainable and it is why I am working everyday to transform our system in Vermont into a right-sized, strong public education system that supports all students and uses our precious statewide resources sustainably and efficiently. Our system is over 200 years in the making and though I want to move fast, coherent change will take time (and extraordinarily political will) and will have to stay within the bounds of the monumental Brigham decision. 



Post #4 

YES, I support the revised CVSD school budget. I appreciate the difficult decisions the board has made and know cuts in school spending have real impacts on kids, learning and opportunities. Further cuts in CVSD alone will not dramatically lower property taxes due to our statewide Education Fund.  I agree that the current property tax trajectory is unsustainable. 


I sincerely appreciate the Williston voters who took time to come and talk with me in person for a couple hours on Monday at the library.  This kind of civil conversation is so important to our democracy. I (desperately!) wish I could give an easy answer or write a short post but our education finance system is incredibly complex, driven by a long tradition of local control, a VT Supreme Court decision that requires "all Vermont children will be afforded educational opportunities that are substantially equal" (regardless of where they live). We are also facing a confluence of long standing cost issues (public education dollars going to private schools and out of state/country, too many small schools for our declining student population, etc.) and newer challenges (end of federal funds while student needs remain very high, accumulated facilities backlog, lack of capacity at AOE to lead the field, inflation, etc.). 


I am voting YES because I am also working everyday to transform our system in Vermont into a right-sized, strong public education system that supports all students and uses our statewide resources sustainably and efficiently. Our system is over 200 years in the making and though I want to move fast, coherent change takes time (and extraordinarily political will) and will have to stay within the bounds of the monumental Brigham decision. 


While it is challenging to raise a family, teach and serve in the Legislature, I believe it’s important that we have voices from working families in Montpelier. I am deeply committed to representing Williston as our state confronts complex challenges in our society and economy. While we may not agree at times, I always strive to be accessible. The intensity of public discourse in our community and at the legislature related to education funding over the past few weeks has weighed heavily on me. It really "filled my (elected office) bucket" to sit and talk in depth with members of our community today.  Thank you! 



Addendum: UNIVERSAL MEALS  

Do I support Universal School Meals? YES. I was one of the sponsors of H. 165 (now Act 64) to make universal meals permanent as of this school year (they were funded by the federal government for two years during the pandemic). I joined 122 representatives in the House, including Rep. Arsenault and Rep. Hyman, in voting for final passage of the legislation and it passed the Senate by a voice vote. 


Do I think property taxes should pay for school meals? NO.  I supported dedicated revenue (a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages) to pay for Universal Meals when we passed Act 64 last year and was disappointed that the legislature did not pass it. This year, the legislature is poised to pay for Universal School Meals through the long-discussed expansion of our state sales tax to include cloud-based services purchased over the internet.  


Our Vermont program was carefully created to maximize federal funds and we have already seen changes in eligibility at the federal level that are reducing our state costs for meals. California, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico, Michigan, and Massachusetts have all passed free Healthy School Meals for All policies and Nevada is continuing to offer meals for at least another year. States are frequent labs of innovation for public policy and often model policies for Congress to pass nationwide. Our universal meals program continues to come in well under budget – it was estimated to cost $24 million for FY25 but that estimate has already been reduced to $18-20 million and could go even lower as we maximize federal funds.  


The pandemic greatly changed the landscape of school nutrition and highlighted to many the critical role that school meals play in supporting student health and learning. I continue to support Universal School Meals for three reasons: 


1. We know there is an unmet need and there are hungry kids in our schools. The federal thresholds for free and reduced meals are very low. Many working families in our state are struggling to make ends meet. School nutrition staff have been very clear in testimony to the House Education Committee that the “old” system was broken and they often had to find ways to skirt it in order to feed hungry kids.  


2. No matter how anonymous a system may be for students who qualify for free and reduced priced lunch, damaging stigma remains.  Across all income levels, children are attuned to distinctions between themselves and other students. Some families are reluctant to complete the form or struggle with its complexity.  When meals are not universally free for all students, the students who qualify often skip the meal to avoid any sense of labeling, particularly as they get older.  School nutrition staff told us that they absolutely see students in their schools who don’t access free/reduced price meals because of the stigma felt by students and as a high school teacher for 18 years, I certainly know this to be true.  With a universal school meals program more students share the same meal, eliminating differences and shifting the cafeteria culture.


3. The benefits of universal meals in schools extend beyond financial need. In schools, we use a principle called universal design for learning – when we design ways to make learning accessible to certain students with tools like audio recording of books or graphic organizers to take notes, these tools often help many more students than those they were intended to support.  These are like curb cuts on sidewalks - they may have been put in place to help those with physical handicaps but they end up providing benefits to many more: parents pushing a stroller, someone with a temporary injury, someone hauling heavy load, etc. Universal meals are like these curb cuts - there is a ripple effect of benefits. Students may come to school hungry for many reasons beyond economic need including family stress, parents working multiple jobs, high school students often starting very early in the morning (I teach high school in another town and have students who get on the bus at 6:20am for our 7:45am start time.) Universal meals programs allow nutrition staff to focus on high quality, home cooked meals and plan and budget in a far more sustainable way that realizes economies of scale.

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