A pair of Southern Vermont lawmakers will have a significant say on how the Legislature proposes to implement new per-pupil weighting factors as part of the state’s education funding formula.
Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Windham 2-1, and Rep. Kathleen James, D-Bennington 4, are among four state representatives appointed Tuesday by House Speaker Jill Krowinski to a task force dedicated to implementing the new weighting factors.
“Hearing from such a wide range of folks around the state it became clear to me an objective, thoughtful process for implementing these weights needs to go forward as soon as possible, but in a way that doesn’t create new problems,” James said. “I’m really honored to have the chance to add my voice to that conversation.”
The bill authorizing the legislative task force, S. 13, was signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott on Monday. It provides for four members each from the House and Senate: Two each from the House Ways & Means and Education committees, and two each from the Senate Finance and Education committees.
Kornheiser, of Brattleboro, the vice-chair of Ways & Means, and James, of Manchester, the clerk of the Education Committee, will be joined by Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Addison-2, the ranking member of the Education Committee, and Rep. Scott Beck, R-Caledonia-3, from Ways & Means.
State Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, an advocate for weighting reform, said the appointments are “a testament to the seriousness the Speaker has placed on resolving this long-standing injustice in our education system.”
“I am especially pleased that Rep. Kornheiser and Rep. James have been put on this task force,” Sibilia said, citing their listening, critical thinking and political skills. “Most importantly to me it is clear that they each care deeply about equity, education and our kids.”
The Senate Committee on Committees has yet to decide on appointees, Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint said. That is expected to happen in the next few days.
The committee is charged with developing legislation which applies the new per-pupil weights, developed as part of a University of Vermont study commissioned by the Legislature, in a manner that assures equal educational opportunity while mitigating education property tax rate changes.
Advocates for changing the weights say they are sorely needed to provide funding equity for districts educating children in rural districts, new English language learners, and children living in poverty. The inadequate per-pupil weights, supporters said, have limited taxing capacity for those districts, leading to difficult school district budget choices between higher taxes or program cuts.
However, when the new weights are applied, overweighted districts with adequate or excess taxing capacity may now find themselves facing the same difficult choice of higher education property taxes or program cuts.
In recognition of the problems faced by underweighted districts, S. 13 halted the dollar-for-dollar excess spending penalty for the fiscal 2022 and 2023 budget years.
This is James’ second summer study committee in as many summers. Last year, she was part of the commission that developed the reinvention proposal for the Vermont State Colleges System, an effort that ended with VSCS receiving a total of $88.9 million in state and federal funds in the fiscal 2022 budget.
“The weighting study bill was one of the most challenging but deeply engaging bills my committee took a look at this session,” James said. “During the court of all that testimony and all those discussions, I really developed a strong interest in the underlying equity issues that are behind this bill.”
That message came through, James said, in testimony from districts that were penalized by underweighting, as well as districts “that are very concerned they’ll be looking at cutting budgets and programs for students” if the new weights aren’t applied thoughtfully.
James said the House appointees are “a great team,” citing Conlon’s experience and expertise, Kornheiser’s aptitude for asking thoughtful questions, and Beck’s knowledge and ideas. I’m looking forward to working with these folks,” she said.
James is also prepared for two likelihoods: That the process will be closely watched and lobbied, and that the task force’s final product may well change once it’s handed back to the full Legislature.
“There’s no doubt there will be a lot of attention on this,” James said. “But that doesn’t change anything about the way any of us will approach the work. Our goal and mission is to come up with a fair, balanced and thoughtful plan that we think solves the problem and deliver it for further consideration. And whatever we come up with won’t be the end of that process.”