Alison Clarkson’s Legislative Update – March 2014

From Alison Clarkson, Vermont State Representative for Plymouth

After our week Town Meeting break, the Legislature began the two weeks of what we call “cross over”.  It roughly marks the half way point in the Session, and it is in this period that major bills must pass from the House to the Senate or vice versa.  As you’ll remember, both bodies need to pass a bill for it to go to the Governor and, once he signs, it becomes law.   Key bills lined up for ‘cross over’ are the FY15 Budget, the Education Property Tax bill, the Transportation bill, Economic Development, a Shorelands Protection bill and a major update of our Education Governance system.

The ‘Big Bill’ is the FY15 Vermont Budget.  Vermont’s budget is where we fund the policies which illustrate our priorities and create outcomes for Vermonters.  Of Vermont’s total budget $7 billion, 32% goes to education, 28% to Medicaid, community based & in patient mental health, addiction treatment, developmental disabilities services and long-term care, 12% to transportation, and 28% covers a wide range of things:  public safety, commerce, weatherization, housing, public health, natural resources, agriculture, police and state emergency services, agriculture, and corrections.  Pressures on state government have outpaced revenues for a number of years. This year that “budget gap” is $70 million. We close that gap each year by adjusting spending to balance the budget.  Sequestration and federal cuts have put even more pressure on the state.

There are bright spots in the budget, such as investment in the Working Lands to stimulate agriculture and forest industries, more people transitioning off of public assistance into employment and the opening of the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital.  There are plenty of challenges, too.  Retired teachers’ health care, currently paid from the retirement fund, needs a separate sustainable fund.  Treatment and long term recovery from opiate addiction is a priority, as untreated addiction has incredible social and financial costs. Water quality is critical and needs additional investment.  Homelessness and emergency housing costs are on the rise, and we need prevention strategies to keep people from losing housing.  The caseload of people seeking developmental services and community based long-term care is growing.  And, many critical IT systems are long overdue for upgrade or replacement.

A major bill working its way towards ‘cross over’ is an update of Vermont’s Education Governance System.  You may have read about the public hearing in Rutland on the governance consolidation proposals the House Education Committee has offered.  Here is a notion of what the proposal entails.  The legislature is considering updating Vermont’s education system to ensure that it provides our students with the core competencies needed for our workforce and citizenship in the 21st century.  The hope is that long term this will save money and improve outcomes for our students.

For over a century, Vermont’s education structure has remained largely unchanged. Our current system was established in 1892 when 2,500 school districts became 300 town-based districts.  Today there are 277 districts, 282 school boards, 340 governing units (including supervisory union boards), 1440 school board members, 320 schools, 62 supervisory unions and districts; and 85,000 students.  In 1892 there were 97,000 students.

Supervisory unions were formed in 1912 to establish statewide qualifications for teachers and standards for teaching.  Today, superintendents manage and coordinate the delivery of education in a supervisory district or supervisory union, both of which are responsible for coordinating preK-12 grade education.  They differ in that a supervisory district is governed by a single board and a supervisory union may represent multiple towns and include regional high schools, career technical centers, union high schools, elementary, and supervisory union boards.  Supervisory unions have produced cost savings but provide little transparency.  By expanding school districts to include supervisory duties and presenting voters with a universal budget, voters will be afforded greater transparency and budgetary oversight.

With the support of local education leaders across the state, the legislature is working to design an updated education structure to promote equitable access to high-quality learning opportunities for all students.  This proposal creates unified pre-kindergarten to twelfth grade (“PK-12”) supervisory districts, eliminating supervisory unions.  It gives each district the tools they need to deliver a complete, modern array of educational opportunities for students.  The guiding tenants of this design include: equitable access to world-class learning opportunities; fiscal efficiency; conditions for stable leadership; a connected, professional workforce; strong community involvement; stability and sustainability for taxpayers; a responsive accountability system; and flexibility in the deployment of resources.

Each district would be governed by a single elected board.  The board would manage one budget, negotiate district-wide contracts, govern the use of properties, and enact strategies that promote continuous improvements to student learning.  Local influence in education will exist as parents, teachers, staff, parents, students, and community members will serve on a local school board.  They will have a defined relationship with their supervisory district board members, and could work with the principal on how the budget will be deployed, curriculum, extra-curricular activities, sports, and school climate.

I appreciate hearing from you.  I can be reached by email:  aclarkson@leg.state.vt.us or by phone at the Statehouse (Tues-Fri) 828-2228 or at home (Sat-Mon) 457-4627.  To get more information on the Vermont Legislature, and the bills which have been proposed and passed, visit the legislative website:  www.leg.state.vt.us

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