Our opinion: Everyone should weigh in on student weighting formula

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Each community throughout Vermont had its own unique issues to deal with on Town Meeting Day - from funding emergency services to local option tax proposals - but one common theme permeated many of the annual gatherings in Southern Vermont: the need to fix the state funding formula for education.

It's a familiar refrain we hear this time of year as towns face the dueling priorities of trying to keep taxes down while funding the growing cost of education amid declining enrollment. The difference this year is that now Southern Vermont towns and school districts have proof that the state funding formula we have been using the last 20 years is flawed. As the Pupil Weights in Vermont's Education Funding Formula Report released last December noted: "The cost factors incorporated in the calculation do not reflect current educational circumstances."

The report recommends a number of changes to the formula to reflect higher educational costs associated with English language learners, schools with higher poverty rates, and schools in rural communities.

While speaking to constituents at Whitingham's Town Meeting, state Rep. John Gannon, D-Windham 6, emphasized the need for Southern Vermonters to lobby the Legislature on this issue. He said a new bill working through the Senate would make modifications related to poverty, density of population and students' ability to speak the English language.

"The Legislature needs to hear from people in Southern Vermont to pull this off," Gannon said. "They need to understand how this will impact Southern Vermont. That's really important."

Citing information from the Joint Fiscal Office, Gannon expects 77 school districts would see their school taxes decrease if recommended changes are made to the weighting system. He said the Twin Valley school system in Whitingham and Wilmington could see an approximately 17-cent decrease on the school tax rate.

Various school boards are trying to get the word out as well. In the days leading up to Town Meeting, the Windham Southeast School District Board passed a resolution calling on the Legislature to change the student weighting formula.

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"The board recognized that the current weighting formula greatly disadvantages the schools of the Windham Southeast School District," states a press release from the board. "We recognize the deleterious effects limited opportunity due to poverty, language, and restricted ability have on student performance."

For places like Marlboro, which operates a stand-alone school district, the financial pain is especially acute. Spending per equalized pupil is increasing from $18,155 this year to $21,584 in fiscal year 2021. The town is being charged an extra spending threshold penalty of $200,000.

If the formula recommended in the report had been used, the spending would have been $16,996 for 146 pupils.

"The Marlboro School Board and taxpayers feel we have been penalized for 20 years ... and this spending threshold penalty adds insult to the many years of injury," Douglas Korb, chairman of the Marlboro School Board, said after Town Meeting Day.

Korb said Marlboro and other towns have been working with the Windham County delegation but residents need to write letters to their local legislators to let them know how important it is to change the weighting formula. If the Legislature doesn't take action, said Korb, "The board and I are talking about taking legal action. They're not following their own mandate and they're going to get sued. If not by us, by others."

Obviously we would prefer to avoid a protracted legal battle that would consume both money and precious time. It would be much better to prod the Legislature to take appropriate action now.

The report "should provide us with the documentation to begin to make needed changes in the funding system," Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, told the Banner. "Of course that's easier said than done whenever you try to take on the `Education Establishment.' I'm in hopes that working together, we can begin to make sure we have equity throughout Vermont."

We urge everyone in Southern Vermont — whether you have children or not — to reach out to the Vermont Senate Education Committee and the Vermont House Education Committee to push for changes to the student weighting formula. The Senate committee will hold a public hearing on the pupil weighting study this Wednesday, March 11, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the State House in Montpelier. Testimony can also be provided by calling the House Committee on Judiciary at 802-828-2257 or e-mailing testimony@leg.state.vt.us.


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