Bill a top priority for Senate Education Committee

02/26/07 12:00AM By Bob Kinzel
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(Host) All this week, Vermont Public Radio is examining the future of education in Vermont - from the factors driving school budgets up to different ways to pay for education.

The head of the Senate Education committee, Franklin senator Don Collins, is sponsoring a bill that he believes will help slow down budget increases in the future.

Collins says the legislation will likely emerge as one of his committee's top priorities for the session.

VPR's Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) When lawmakers passed Act 68 several years ago, they included a provision in the bill to discourage towns from spending far above the per student statewide average.

Here's how it works. Originally if a town's per pupil expenditure exceeded the statewide average by more than 35% a penalty provision kicked in. For every dollar the town spent above this threshold, it had to send an additional dollar to the state.

Gradually the penalty threshold has been reduced. It now kicks in when spending is 25% above the statewide average.

Senator Collins wants to lower the threshold even further. Gradually, over the next few years he gradually wants it to apply when per pupil spending exceeds 15% of the statewide average.

Currently 8 towns pay the penalty because their spending is above the 25% threshold. When Collins' plan is fully implemented at the 15% level 81 towns would face the penalty.

Collins is a school board member in Swanton. He says he likes this approach because most local school officials are familiar with the concept.

(Collins) "I find that they're very aware of these caps. They call them penalties. You can use whatever term you want. But I think that because people are familiar with these and what they need to do if they don't want to go over these excessive spending provisions and what type of tough decisions they make, I think that that's an advantage. The other advantage to me is that it creates a discussion at the local level where it should be made."

(Kinzel) Collins says his plan doesn't prohibit additional spending at the local level but it does discourage it:

(Collins) "There's nothing wrong with a community saying, These are provisions. These are penalties.' But in our town we are not going to use them as a measure of how we fund our schools. And in that case all they have to do is inform their public or convince their public that they're willing to pay more money to have the programs that would push them over the cap. Nobody's saying they can't go over it. What we're saying - if you do, then it's going to be a little painful."

(Kinzel) If his plan is implemented, Collins thinks it will cause local schools to conduct an annual review of all their programs.

(Collins) "I think it's getting many schools where I want to see them go. And that is that they look at each program, each year - not how much are we going to increase it, but do we need it? How much is it costing us? And make decisions based on programs expenditures, what's best for youth, what's best bang for the dollar."

(Kinzel) The Vermont School Boards Association has a lot of concerns about the Collins plan.

John Nelson is the executive director of the group.

(Nelson) "The problem is that in this day and age when you struggle with this kind of a cap or threshold you're going to end up cutting some programs or making some cuts that are going to be very difficult. And so it's another one of these methodologies that doesn't take into account what the reasons might be for increasing spending or what their reasons might be for coming close to the threshold."

(Kinzel) Nelson thinks it's a mistake to consider any cost cutting plans until more is known about the factors that are driving up school budgets.

(Nelson) "In some sense we're putting the cart before the horse when we look at these kinds of solutions. We really need to consider a larger picture about what is causing costs to go up. The role of schools is expanding and while the role of the schools expands we say, well we're spending too much on schools.'"

(Kinzel) Nelson says he prefers the Collins approach to the governor's plan to cap local school spending at roughly 3.5% because it gives local school officials more flexibility in designing their budgets.

For Vermont Public Radio I'm Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

Note:You can join Bob Kinzel for one or both programs on the Future of Education. The first program on Tuesday night at Burr and Burton Academy focuses on the costs of education. The second program on Thursday night at the Capitol Plaza Hotel considers how to pay for it. Live broadcasts start at 7:00, a reception for the studio audience starts at 5:30 in both locations. The programs are free. Make your reservation online.
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